Podcast Transcript: Time to Act: Why We Need the State To Ho-Ho-Hold Schools Harmless This December

Note: Intersect Ed is best experienced as a podcast. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis missing from the transcript.

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Tessa Benavides: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Tessa Benavides, and we have a special edition of Intersect Ed we wanted to bring you about a very important issue that is making the holiday season not so merry and bright for public schools across our state.

This year, due to the pandemic, Texas public schools have seen steep enrollment declines. At the start of the pandemic, you may have heard school leaders concerned that enrollment declines could affect their budgets. But the state stepped in, and rather than funding schools based on their average daily attendance numbers, they opted to fund schools based on historical attendance data, something called “Hold Harmless.”

Hold Harmless is set to expire on December 31st, and if it does, schools could be forced to make some pretty severe cuts.

I’m with Bob Popinski, our Director of Policy, who will explain in more detail what this means and why it’s important to schools that the Hold Harmless funding model continues through the end of the current school year.

Bob Popinski: Thank you, Tessa. Yes, school districts have needed the Hold armless to maintain their funding throughout the school year. They were fortunate enough to receive this funding early on, but it expires December 31st, and so the hope is that the commissioner continues to provide this Hold Harmless so that school districts can maintain their original budgets that they planned back in the summer before COVID-19 happened.

This year, the pandemic has caused student enrollment declines of more than 4% in some districts, and that’s thrown the projections off course.

The ask for districts to be held harmless is not schools asking for additional funding or more money. The money has already been allocated in the state budget last legislative session. Districts have created their budgets already. They’ve hired staff, they’ve added resources, and right in the middle of the school year, if you take this funding away, everything is suddenly going to have to shift.

Tessa: That sudden shift is what school leaders across the state are trying to prevent from happening. Dr. Gonzalo Salazar is the superintendent of Los Fresnos ISD, a small school district located close to South Padre Island in the Rio Grande Valley. He best explains what the removal of Hold Harmless funding levels will feel like to school districts.

Dr. Gonzalo Salazar: I think superintendents understand the anxiety that staff and parents feel during this pandemic, and they continue to forge ahead really with grace and elegance. They have to be rocks in their communities to keep things going.

We’re merely stewards of these resources, but the operational changes that would be required with a loss in funding when you serve in a district with a declining enrollment cannot be done overnight. We’re talking about making a 90-degree turn at 80 miles an hour. We need to be funded at Hold Harmless levels so that the spokes don’t come off the wheels.

Tessa: Dr. Salazar is not alone in his concern about what budget cuts will mean mid-year. In Northwest ISD, a rapidly growing school district located in the northwestern area of the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, Superintendent Dr. Ryder Warren is concerned about those potential cuts and continuing to serve his students, teachers, and staff through a very tumultuous school year.

Dr. Ryder Warren: It’s just about people understanding how we create and manage our budgets year to year. Our budget process has never really stopped.

Northwest ISD is a challenge for us. As you guys know, we are definitely a fast-growth school district. We average between 1,000 and 1,100 new students a year.

Dr. Warren: Even though we did grow, we didn’t grow at the rate that we thought we would. We did not grow at the rate that we budgeted it for. Again, that’s the dichotomy between how we plan and what we’re actually funded on. How we plan is on those student projections that we are very meticulous on, but it’s really the ADA, how many of our kids are actually in their seats counted as present every day on how we’re funded. And, that’s why this Hold Harmless was so important this first semester because the state guaranteed the funding levels that we’ve had in the past.

We just need to keep rolling with this because the repercussions of COVID, when we get past these positive cases in our districts, we’re still going to have a lot of challenges for the next several years getting our children back up to where they need to be.

Tessa: If Hold Harmless funding is not extended, the repercussions will be felt for many years to come. As Dr. Warren just explained,Texas schools and, most important, their students will not be fully recovered once the pandemic subsides. Instead, when the pandemic ends, will be the beginning of the most challenging work.

Remember when Bob mentioned that an estimated 4 percent of students have not returned to school this academic year? That 4 percent equates to tens of thousands of students currently not receiving academic instruction.

It is serving these students that concerns superintendents most when they think long-term of making cuts this year.

Tessa: So who are these students who are not returning to school either in-person or via remote learning? Dr. Warren again:

Dr. Warren: Parents had tough decisions this year, everybody has had tough decisions, but especially our parents, especially those younger parents, dealing with their first children going into school, I don’t blame them a bit, a lot of them have chosen, our kindergarteners have chosen just not to place their kids in school this year, just because of the COVID challenge.

Tessa: Dr. Salazar echoes these concerns about students who are not attending in-person nor remote school options. In his part of the state, he has spoken to many colleagues who have shed light on the reasons many low-income students are not currently enrolled in school.

Dr. Salazar: We need to continue to fund schools at Hold Harmless levels so that the resources are available when kids decide to come back to school, and they will. Those kids are somewhere. If they have entered the workforce, that’s a dangerous thing. If they have simply dropped out of school and are not engaged in productive ways in their communities, that is a dangerous thing. It’s something that we should all be concerned with and be willing to make an investment in resources so that we can encourage them to get back when this is over.

Dr. Salazar: This pandemic may have created a group of dropouts that we won’t know. I mean, we don’t know now, but we will identify them and encourage them to come back to school. When I say we, I’m talking across the state of Texas.

Tessa: That “we” Dr. Salazar just spoke about, means of all of us. We all must be concerned about preventing a generation of students who do not recover academically from the effects of the pandemic. Texas’ future depends on the strong recovery of our public schools, and now is not the time for them to face budget cuts.

Now is the time when they need all of our support, for all of us to take action.

Dr. Warren: We’re going to have parents calling, our school board members are going to be calling. We’re going to set up these communication lines with all eight of our state leaders. It’s just about giving our leaders the ammunition that they need to make the right decisions and to push others there in Austin.

Tessa: Let’s keep this holiday season a time when bells are ringing and children are singing, not when school leaders are worrying that their stockings will be empty.

You can visit aiseYourHandTexas.org to learn more about our campaign to hold schools harmless. There you can send an email to your state legislators asking them to contact the Governor to continue the Hold Harmless for the rest of the school year.

Tessa: After the holiday break, our next episodes of IntersectEd continue with our legislative priorities for the upcoming 2021 Legislative Session and dive deeper into the issues most affecting public schools: the importance of pre-kindergarten and early childhood education, the effects of the digital divide on students, and the pitfalls of expanding full-time virtual schools too quickly.

Until then, Happy Holidays from all of us at Raise Your Hand Texas. I’m Tessa Benavides, and this is Intersect Ed.

Today’s episode was written and narrated by me, Tessa Benavides. Our Sound Engineer and Editor is Brian Diggs and Executive Producer is Laura Mellett.

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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