HOUSTON, Texas -- A transformation is underway in Houston ISD at a time when the district is expecting budget deficits in the coming years, including a $31 million deficit projected for fiscal year 2022-23, which started in July.
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The first part of a strategic plan meant to transform HISD came to fruition June 9 when district trustees unanimously adopted the FY 2022-23 budget. It included roughly a 11% bump in pay on average for all district teachers. The starting pay for a new teacher increased by more than 8%, from $56,869 to $61,500.
"This will be the largest increase that HISD has gotten in [its] history," said Jackie Anderson, president of the HISD chapter of the Federation of Teachers, to trustees at the June 9 meeting. "If you want students to learn and you want students to feel safe and appreciated, you have to do the same thing for staff."
However, several trustees, along with Superintendent Millard House II, were quick to point out that the raises were made possible in part thanks to one-time federal coronavirus relief dollars through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program. If significant changes are not made in the near future, the district faces a potential "fiscal cliff" in the 2024-25 school year, House said.
"These resources have allowed us to make major investments in our students and teachers, but we know that these funds are not permanent," House said.
As they work through federal relief dollars, district leaders are looking into ways they can save money down the line, a process that will include cuts to central office funding and potentially the consolidation of schools.
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The adopted $2.26 billion budget is expected to result in a $31 million deficit in FY 2022-23, according to district information.
About $102 million in one-time ESSER funds are being used to plug holes, including $52 million to pay salaries. Another $50 million will be allocated to indirect costs, including as discretionary money at the district's highest-need campuses, House said.
"This budget makes a commitment to putting more funds directly in the hands of our campus leaders, especially as they navigate leading, teaching and learning ... in the shadow of a global pandemic," House said.
In comments to Community Impact Newspaper, Anderson said teachers not feeling supported is a key factor in a teacher shortage being seen nationwide. Moving forward, teachers will need to continue to be at the table where educational decisions are being made, she said.
As of June 16, the most recent data available, HISD had allocated roughly $614.57 million of its $1.16 billion in ESSER funds, which includes two separate packages called ESSER II and ESSER III. About $363 million of the funding has been spent so far.
The remaining ESSER II funds must be allocated by Sept. 30, 2023, while the ESSER III funds must be allocated by Sept. 30, 2024, according to ESSER guidelines. After that point, HISD will be on the hook to fund its compensation plan out of its own budget.
The bigger picture
The teacher salary increases were part of a five-year strategic plan House released in February, and future increases are anticipated to keep the district competitive, which will necessitate a new approach to budgeting, House said.
District 5 trustee Sue Deigaard said the budget represented a step in the right direction for the district in terms of being more competitive with pay. However, she said she had concerns about the budget's sustainability.
"My biggest worry about this budget is what happens in two years when the ESSER dollars run out," she said. "How we balance the budget will either set children up for success or allow them to fall further behind."
Although Deigaard voted to approve the budget in June, she described her vote at the time as a reluctant one. She said the budget did not provide enough specifics on how officials would ensure money was being targeted at the district's biggest needs in terms of actually helping students learn, calling that the "north star."
"Just having a balanced budget is not the measure of a successful school district," she said. "These are all means to an end. The ultimate end is, 'are children learning?'"
Moving forward, HISD will work with the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal to take a deep dive into finances, which will include identifying ways to improve efficiencies and accountability, which Deigaard said gave her some comfort in approving the budget.
Many questions remain to be answered in terms of what the district's restructuring ultimately looks like. Whatever shape it takes, it will be crucial to take community feedback into account, said Trista Bishop-Watt, interim executive director with Houstonians for Greater Public Schools, a group that works to increase public understanding of how public schools and school boards function.
"Nobody wants to see school closures happen, but we do have an enrollment problem in the district," she said. "If communities are going to be impacted, then this needs to be a public, transparent process that factors in, not just the financial aspects, but the impacts to communities."
The next steps
The start of the restructuring efforts could be seen in the $60 million cut from HISD central office spending in the FY 2022-23 budget, which includes a decrease in staff and downsizing of administrative departments, House said. He emphasized that no cuts were made to the HISD police department, the financial team or legal services.
House gave a general outline of how he saw the district's "fiscal transformation" playing out over the next few years.
Over the course of the 2022-23 school year, House said the district will conduct a cost-benefit analysis to better inform how it should be spending its money and determine ways to make its budgets more accurate. In the near term, he said the district is developing budgeting guidance to better help school leaders when it comes to financial management.
Details on what the restructuring could look like are expected to come out this fall, and the spring semester will feature community engagement sessions to gather input from stakeholders. House said the goal is for the district to have a new budgeting process in place around the start of the 2023-24 school year.
When it comes to improving academic outcomes, House said the move to pay teachers more is an important first step.
"For HISD to attract and retain staff at a time of national labor education shortages, we know that it is imperative that we make this investment," House said.
This content was provided by our partners at Community Impact Newspaper.