Legislative Agenda - Priority A

Posted in , on May 19, 2021

COVID-19 has been expensive for school districts

The 87th Texas Legislature convened on Jan. 12, 2021, and will adjourn May 31, 2021. The legislature meets every two years to set the state’s budget and consider and implement new legislation. For each legislative session, the Arlington ISD issues a legislative agenda with a series of priorities that are important to the district and public education in Texas. The district shares the agenda and priorities with our elected officials and seeks their support.

 The article below is the second in a series designed to share and explain the district’s legislative priorities with our stakeholders. This story addresses Legislative Priority A. For more information on all the priorities and to read the entire legislative agenda, please visit aisd.net/district/legislative-affairs.

Arlington ISD Legislative Priority A

Allocate state funds to ensure that public education is not disrupted due to financial hardships created by the global health crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has it everyone hard, including school districts. Arlington ISD was and continues to be faced with many unexpected expenses in technology, food service, personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies and much more. Most of these expenses were paid immediately with no guarantee of reimbursement. Plus, uncertainty surrounding the State of Texas’ tax revenue and budget, combined with an unforeseen reduction in enrollment in school districts across the state, fueled concern that districts might not receive the amount of state aid they had budgeted for.

Arlington ISD’s legislative priority A was written with these concerns in mind. It asks the State of Texas to hold school districts harmless, meaning that the state should fund school districts at the levels planned for before the pandemic. 

COVID is Expensive

COVID-19 has been expensive from the outset in March 2020. For fiscal year 2019-2020, COVID expenses for Arlington ISD totaled more than $10.9 million. It then jumped to nearly $20 million at last count for this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Many of the expenses were urgent and unexpected, and many were not in the budget. Immediately upon school closures in March 2020, Arlington ISD started distributing meals to any child under 18 and quickly built a $6 million deficit in food and nutrition services. Technology costs soared as Chromebooks and iPads were distributed to every student who needed one, and the district provided hotspots for families without internet access. Additional cleaning supplies and PPE were also purchased and distributed or installed.

COVID interrupted everything, but Arlington ISD made sure there was no interruption in feeding students and providing basic services.

“COVID caused needs that couldn’t wait,” said Arlington ISD superintendent Dr. Marcelo Cavazos. “Even though we didn’t know if we would get reimbursed, we paid for these things right away because we’re committed to ensuring our students are fed and get the technology and services they need.”

Payroll has been expensive, too. That includes paying for a higher number of substitutes than usual when teachers and staff were ill or quarantined due to COVID. It also includes paying employee salaries even when some couldn’t work due to the COVID closures. The district decided to pay employees like bus drivers, custodians, secretaries and more who were sidelined while all campuses were shut down. It was not only the right thing to do for those employees and their families, it was also necessary for the district to retain them. The job market for those employees is competitive and the district couldn’t afford to lose them.

Enrollment challenge

COVID-19 has caused enrollment in Arlington ISD and most districts across the nation to go down. In Arlington ISD, the projected enrollment for 2020-2021 was 59,117, but the actual enrollment at the end of the first semester was 56,747. While that 4% drop is not as high as many Texas districts have faced, it is significant and held the potential to drive down state funding at a time when COVID was causing so many additional expenses.

This is because a large part of school district revenue comes from state aid. The amount of that state aid is tied directly to student attendance. For each student, a school district receives an allotment from the state. 

When school districts set their budgets, they can’t know what their enrollment will be, so they use projections of student enrollment to build the budget. In normal years, the projections are typically very accurate. 

When COVID hit and drove down enrollment, Arlington ISD, joined by most districts in the state, faced a potential budget shortfall. If the state funded districts based on actual enrollment, instead of the projected enrollment Arlington ISD had budgeted and already staffed for, the district would have to make large cuts and likely lay off teachers and staff.

Legislative Priority A addresses this concern by asking the state to sustain funding at pre-COVID levels and hold districts harmless for the unpredictable drop in enrollment.

State Revenue

Legislative Priority A also comes out of concern over the State of Texas’ own revenue shortfall during the pandemic. The state’s tax revenue took a double punch from COVID and a concurrent oil and gas crisis.

When coronavirus shut down many business, restaurants and tourism, state sales tax revenue plummeted. To make matters worse, the pandemic coincided with an oil dispute between Saudi Arabi and Russia that resulted in oversupply at the same time that COVID-19 was driving down demand. The shockwaves meant oil and gas prices went down, too, and left Texas oil and gas firms struggling, thousands of workers in the sector laid off, and the revenue the state makes off production and sales in steep decline.

The reduction in state revenue forced cuts throughout the state and led to concerns that the Texas Education Agency and Texas legislature might not fund education at the level it had committed to.

While state budget cuts were unquestionably required by the crises, Arlington ISD believes education is not the place for it. Educating and providing for our students needs to be a top priority of the state, and full funding is critical.

Hold Harmless

So far, the State of Texas has held school districts harmless and provided the opportunity for full funding for last school year and much of this year.

TEA held school districts harmless, meaning they funded them at their projected enrollment, for the 2019-2020 school year without any stipulations.

That was the case again for the 2020-2021 school year during the first two six-week periods. After that, stipulations have been required. Starting with the third six-week period, districts had to offer in-person school to receive full funding. And for the final three six-week periods, districts must meet one of two requirements. They must have 80% of students attending school in-person during the last six-week period, or their in-person attendance must be higher than it was in the fall.

That means funding for Arlington ISD for the final three six-week periods of this school year is still up in the air. The district does not have 80% of students attending school in-person, so we will need to have higher in-person attendance during this final six-week period than we had in the fall, which was 38.1%.

Still Uncertainty

We are grateful that TEA and the Texas legislature have made it possible for school districts to be “held harmless,” but there is still work to do. As the 2020-2021 school year wraps up in conjunction with the 87th Texas legislative session, there is still uncertainty surrounding school district funding both for the end of this school year and next, so we continue to ask the state to ensure public education funding is not disrupted due to financial hardships created by COVID-19.

Learn more about Arlington ISD’s legislative agenda. Plus, read about why the district is involved in legislative affairs and check back tomorrow for an article on legislative priority B.