Podcast Transcript: The COVID-19 Crunch

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Libby Cohen: With Raise Your Hand Texas, I am Libby Cohen. 

So you’ve probably noticed that we are in the throes of a presidential election season, and now that September is here, it is almost impossible to avoid campaign ads on TV, in your mailbox, on your social media. It feels like campaigns are everywhere. 

But what might not be on your radar is the quiet work going on behind the scenes with legislators, staffers, state agencies, associations, and lobbyists to lay the groundwork for the conversations that will define our next legislative session.

For our next series of episodes, we want to invite you to pull up a chair and take a seat at this policy table. We’ll explore what’s shaping up for some of the biggest issues impacting Texas school districts. Issues that Raise Your Hand Texas will championing in the Capitol come January. So, let’s get started with the issue that influences all the others: school finance.

Bryan Guinn: There aren’t any adjectives that I can find that haven’t already been used to describe the situation that we’re currently in. I’ve been in local government for over 18 years. I’ve experienced two tropical storms, three hurricanes, and multiple flooding events, but all of those had a finite duration.

And in this case, there’s no clarity on when we can expect it to end, so obviously, there’s a lot of conversation we can have about how we’re planning to respond and the impact it’s going to have on funding.

Alejandro Izaguirre: That was Bryan Guinn, Chief Financial Officer for Fort Bend ISD. He is one of the many school leaders in Texas who will navigate the budget challenges of an unexpected school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bryan: And at its heart, this is a human crisis, as much as it is a health crisis. 

Alejandro: It’s also a crisis that school budget officials like Guinn say they have seen before. The budget cuts expected for this upcoming session may be very similar to the cuts that public education experienced back in 2011. Ann Westbrooks, Chief Financial Officer at Spring ISD explains.

Ann Westbrooks: There a lot of eerie similarities that we’re seeing happen when you compare what happened in 2011 to what’s happening now. For Spring, we cut about $29.5 million dollars from our budget, and so, of course, that had a significant impact on staffing. And we laid off close to I want to say between 600 and 700 teachers at that point in time. We had to increase our class size ratios. We decreased the transportation offerings that we had and then cut programs across the board. It was significant, and it did have a significant impact. And it took years to rebuild and to add some of those programs back. 

Yeah, it was quite a bit. 

Alejandro: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Alejandro Izaguirre, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. 

In the previous episode of Intersect Ed, we heard from school leaders across the state on how they planned, prepared, and reimagined school for the 2020-2021 school year. Today’s episode is about how our school leaders are navigating the increased costs of running a school during a global pandemic.

I am joined by Bob Popinski, our Director of Policy and an expert in the Texas School Finance system, who has spoken with dozens of districts across the state about the impact COVID has had on our school finance system.

We know last session’s passage of House Bill 3 was a monumental moment for our schools. And then, just as this new funding and programs were being implemented, COVID hit. What are school budget officials’ biggest concerns leading up to the next legislative session?

Bob Popinski: Coming off of House Bill 3 was a historic moment. They added about $650 on average per student, which was one of the biggest increases that we’ve had in public education in Texas in a generation. 

I think what school districts are most worried about is the cuts that might come next legislative session due to the downturn in the economy. It’s gonna take another generation just to get back to where we were prior to House Bill 3.

Alejandro: Budget analysts like Bob know the economic impact is going to be felt for years. The State Comptroller said in mid-July that the state is facing a $4.6 billion dollar budget deficit for the current budget. The shortfall for the next state budget could be in the tens of billions of dollars. 

And unlike other natural disasters that impact specific regions of the state, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a crisis felt in every part of the state from the Gulf Coast to Big Bend, from the tip of the Panhandle, down to the Rio Grande Valley.

Lorena Garcia: It’s an ever-changing experience, especially here, in the Rio Grande Valley. We are being very hard-hit. It is one of the hotspots for COVID-19.

You know one other thing that educators are, is they’re an extremely resilient group of people. We’re not new to struggles. We’re used to doing a lot with very little. We get very creative. What we have had to do, of course, is not only worry about the safety and the health and the wellbeing, as well as the mental health in preparing for the instructional challenges that lie up ahead for our students, but also, we’re going around, right now, in a disaster-recovery mode.

It is quite a bit of an investment of resources, and it is a challenge for us, but we have a wonderful team of individuals on staff, thankfully, and they are literally working 24/7.

Alejandro: That voice belongs to Lorena Garcia, the Deputy Superintendent for Support Services at Mission CISD, who says, ‘running a school safely and effectively this year in an ever-changing environment has been a challenge.’

Additional costs include personal protective equipment, teacher safety, social distancing measures, cleaning, technology for remote instruction, and additional transportation costs. The cost to safely put students back in classrooms is an estimated $485 dollars per student in an average size school district. Lorena breaks them down.

Lorena: We have made a substantial investment to provide PPE, personal protection equipment, for all of our staff and students. We will be having daily temperature checks. We have installed physical barriers: plexiglass and transparent shields.

Our clinics …  we are equipping them with telemedicine stations. So every single campus will have access to a doctor through telemedicine, through our nursing staff, and there will be testing available, including COVID-19 testing.

In addition to that, we are focusing on mental health. We recently were awarded a COVID-19 grant that allowed us to hire ten licensed professional counselors. We currently have five licensed professional counselors within our district that provide support to our students, but this would expand it to an additional ten that, specifically, will focus on helping students transition from the at-home instruction into the classroom and help them excel academically and also help them with their mental well-being.

We also have some high expectations of our employees as far as safety and security.

We will be requiring that they self-report. There will be quarantining for any employee that has been exposed and any potential exposure. We are currently increasing the sanitation of our buildings. We have expanded our fleet of electrostatic mist machines that spray Clorox 360, which not only just gets on the surface, but it also goes into the nooks and crannies, and the porous surfaces and killing the bacteria. We’re doing that on a daily basis, sanitizing the doorknobs and so forth. Having sanitation stations. Frequent hand washing. 

We’re also going to reduce the number of students in the classrooms, having them have their meals within the classrooms, maybe also even having to expand our physical spaces using the gymnasium so that we can physically distance depending on the number of students that we have. The scene here, at our campuses, will be quite different. 

Alejandro: Facilities and custodial workers across the state are also working hard to ensure they provide a safe learning environment for students when they return to in-person classes. Damian Viltz, the Executive Director of Facilities at Fort Bend ISD, shares more about ordering additional supplies and the challenges of finding those supplies readily available. 

Damian Viltz: Some of the other challenges are still in the supply chain. The worldwide supply chain has been strained. In March, you couldn’t find toilet paper. There’s also a run on cleaning supplies and cleaning equipment. The things that we need to do our jobs effectively. 

Alejandro: Transportation services are another area of increased costs, even though fewer students are riding. Carmen Torres, a bus driver in Spring ISD, explains.

Carmen Torres: We clean the buses, but in the end of the day. But now it is in the end of each route. Maybe in one route, you can load 70, 40 students, but after this problem, you can load only 14. That’s why the bus needs to go back many times. They’re gonna spend a lot of money on the diesel.

I’m working with the special-need kids, and those kids, they need a lot of be friendly with them, to be more lovely with them, and talking different ways. Like, I had a lot of connections, really close with them, but after this COVID-19, to don’t be too close like before.

Before the COVID, we had kids like they don’t like to sit alone, and we put two kids with a similar situation, and they are happy, and they’re talking or singing together. And like that way all the way through the house and the school, they are really good, you know. They are relaxed, and it’s no problem with that, but after that, we need to put a separate. I don’t know, with the attitude, I think it’s gonna change. 

Alejandro: In addition to increased costs, many school districts now have a revenue problem as well. That’s because our school funding system is based on attendance. Enrollment is down due to COVID, and our districts are still trying to figure out how to take attendance in a mix of remote, hybrid, and in-person environments. 

Bob has been talking to school leaders across the state about this shift and what it means for school budgets.

Bob: Enrolling students has always been a little stressful the first several weeks of school. But with COVID-19, tracking down students has become even more complex.  You have to offer three different types of learning approaches, in person, synchronous, asynchronous, and you got to make sure students are prepared for that. 

Teachers have been spending the last several weeks before school trying to contact and re-enroll students in order to obtain a good estimate of how many students will actually be there the first week. But it’s been pretty difficult.  

Alejandro: George McFarland, the Deputy Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer for San Angelo ISD, called the situation, ‘a budget planning nightmare.’ 

George McFarland: If I have to wait till two weeks before the start of school before I finally know, this percentage of my students are going remote, this percentage of my students are gonna be face-to-face. I’ve now put some crunch on my administration, my staff, my campus, about how we’re going to address all the needs of our students.

Alejandro: The impact at the elementary level has been particularly large. Districts have reported decreases in Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten enrollment across the state. Julie Moynihan, principal of West Handley Elementary in Fort Worth ISD, said she has had to shift staffing dramatically.

Julie Moynihan: Our enrollment is down, particularly in Pre-Kinder. The direction that I have received from our district leadership is that they will be looking at staffing after a few weeks and doing what they call leveling. A lot of that is driven by the district. It’s not necessarily driven by me. My hope is that they’ll acknowledge and realize that this may be a temporary decline in students and still allow us to retain some of those teachers, but I can’t guarantee that.

Alejandro: Decreases in sales tax revenue, due to the slowdown in the economy, is affecting schools as well. Ann Westbrooks explains how schools are funded and her biggest concerns for school years ahead.

Ann: Sales tax is the single largest source of funding for the State of Texas. Even though they’re looking at a deficit of about $4.58 billion for this biennium, we’ve heard that our funding should remain fairly consistent for the second year of the biennium, which is our 2021 budget. 

The concern, of course, is going into the legislative session in January, and that’s where you know the sales tax collection is going to have a significant impact on the funds that are available for public education.

Alejandro: Though schools did receive some assistance last spring through the Federal Cares Act, that money will be gone by the next legislative session, leaving many districts wondering whether the state will commit to funding education at the same amount.

Bob: Depending on what the next budget shortfall is, next legislative session, what they’re hoping for is an additional federal stimulus package that comes down that will provide funding for the next two school years. School districts are really concerned that they’re gonna have to dip into what they’ve already budgeted for additional programs to pay for their COVID-19-related expenses.

The biggest concern is when you look back to 2011. A lot of the hallmark programs that they just passed again in House Bill 3 were actually the programs on the chopping blocks in 2011.

Because of COVID-19, we just need to make sure all of our investments made in House Bill 3 are protected the best that we can. We need to ensure that the federal dollars used to supplant state funding this past year from COVID-19 Cares Act are actually used to increase public education funding. We need to continue to invest in our students and address issues of equity and long-term sustainability of our public schools.

More than ever, what we need to do is make sure that the programs that the legislative body worked so hard on last legislative session actually continue and not be cut as we move through this difficult budget process.

Alejandro: Public schools face a challenging and unusual school year. They have had to reimagine how schools operate. Continued investment in public education is needed – now more than ever. 

From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Alejandro Izaguirre, and this is Intersect Ed. In our next few episodes, we will continue to explore issues that Raise Your Hand Texas will champion during the upcoming 2021 Texas Legislative Session.

Thanks for listening to IntersectEd. If you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved, head over to RaiseYourHandTexas.org.


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