New Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ plans for the district are built on the promise of more.
More pay for teachers. More staff in classrooms. More security officers on campuses.
But all of those extra perks cost lots of money. And right now, HISD can’t afford them without digging deep into its savings.
To carry out Miles’ vision for Texas’ largest district, HISD projects to spend nearly $250 million more than it will receive in the current fiscal year — a total that would dwarf any recent operating deficit incurred by the district, financial records analyzed by the Houston Landing show. The deficit projection calls into question the long-term sustainability of plans announced by Miles, who wants to increase investments even more in the coming years if financially feasible.
For the moment, HISD’s projected 2023-24 deficit does not spell financial peril.
HISD’s chief financial officer estimated that the district has about $900 million in reserves, well above the roughly $500 million mark that the state encourages HISD to keep. Nearly half of those reserves were built up over the past several years, a period during which HISD routinely over-budgeted its costs. HISD’s state-appointed board, which took power in June along with Miles as part of state sanctions against the district, has signed off on tapping the reserves.
But HISD can’t continue to spend beyond its means forever. It’s a reality that Miles acknowledged in an interview last week.
“We understand how budgets work and we understand what levers to pull,” Miles said. “I’m not here to save money. I’m here to help teachers raise the quality of instruction and get kids ready for the year 2035.”
Still, Miles hasn’t detailed how he plans to close the gap, leaving some local officials and community members concerned about HISD’s financial outlook.
To date, Miles has outlined parts of a roadmap that would allow HISD to close the deficit next year.
The new superintendent expects to cut some costs through eliminating hundreds of central office jobs, along with planned efficiencies in bus transportation and human resources. (An August investigation by the Houston Landing revealed Miles had overstated central office job cuts while more than doubling the number of administrators earning annual salaries of more than $150,000.)
Miles also expects some costs this year will not recur, such as interactive whiteboard purchases and the $10,000 stipends.
And while Miles hasn’t laid out plans for closing or consolidating schools as a cost-saving measure, he’s alluded to that potential. In an interview with the Landing upon taking the job, Miles said he “most likely” will bring a list of campuses that should to be closed ahead of the 2024-25 school year to HISD’s appointed board.
A 2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board showed HISD’s schools have space for roughly 250,000 students, while enrollment fell to about 182,000 students in early September. Closing about 40 schools of the district’s nearly 250 campuses could save HISD $26 million in annual operating costs, the Legislative Budget Board said.
On the revenue side, Miles argued HISD could receive more state funding for summer school and pay-for-performance teacher compensation models, which likely would total tens of millions of dollars annually. Terry also said he expects public school districts will receive some additional funding following the October special legislative session.
In the meantime, the lack of clarity risks further inflaming tensions between community members opposed to Miles’ administration and HISD’s leadership.
Ann Eagleton, a longtime budget hawk and parent of HISD graduates, said she’s alarmed by the pace of the district’s spending — particularly in light of next year’s expiration of pandemic stimulus cash that has helped cover costs of catching up students.
“I don’t really feel like the board of managers is asking that many questions about how we’re going to move forward,” Eagleton said. “Because once that surplus is gone, it’s gone.”
HISD Board President Audree Momanaee did not respond to a request for comment.
See here for more on those central office cuts that weren’t quite what we thought they would be. I have been asking about the fiscal viability of Miles’ plans for some time now. We’re still not any closer to an answer. It’s not that this all can’t be made to work in the HISD budget. There’s a lot of moving parts, but you can see where the numbers could add up, especially if he follows through on a plan to close and consolidate schools. Which will open up another whole can of worms, but really does seem inevitable if HISD’s enrollment doesn’t bounce back in a significant way.
The main problem continues to be one of trust, especially as the answer that we get from Miles and his minions on these questions is basically “you don’t need to know the details, we’ll tell you when we’re ready”. Mike Miles has not earned that kind of trust. A Superintendent that was hired by the elected Board and had actual oversight on them would never have that kind of trust, either. Miles’ overall track record doesn’t inspire any benefit of the doubt, between the funny math on central office cuts, his exaggerated claims about HISD academic performance, the whole libraries debacle, and so much more. We haven’t even touched the special ed situation, in which there are more questions, a paucity of details, and some unknown cost to whatever the solution will be. And in the meantime we’re hoping for more money in this upcoming voucherriffic special session, where the vibes are immaculate? Yeah, you can see where the skepticism comes from. Sure would have been nice if Miles had made an effort to build bridges and establish trust, but here we are.