Everyone knows the pandemic hit school finances hard, but districts shouldn’t make COVID-19 the scapegoat for all of their money problems.
While the virus certainly has had a fundamental role in precipitating financial hardship, for many districts, much of the woe is of their own making.
Up and down the Dallas-Fort Worth area, districts are facing the consequences of their past financial missteps — and parents and students are the ones who suffer the most.
For example, take Carroll Independent School District. It’s in a bad place financially. While the district is centered around one of the most property-wealthy municipalities in the region, its leaders are faced with a difficult decision between maintaining a manageable budget deficit of $4 million, and giving teachers a long-overdue raise, which could force the deficit as high as nearly $5.5 million.
District leaders blame COVID-19. More specifically, they blame “unaccounted expenditures” stemming from the pandemic, as well as a loss of $3 million in expected revenue from government sources, but the reality is far more complicated than that.
Carroll ISD has had high debt for more than a decade, but after years of slow improvement, the district’s debt spiked in 2017, and has increased ever since.
Carroll’s debt would have eventually become an issue whether there was a pandemic or not, but COVID-19 turned a manageable long-term concern into a budgetary calamity. As such, the district must accept some level of blame for the crisis.
Lovejoy ISD is faring no better. It too is facing a $5 million budget shortfall, and administrators have publicly identified pandemic-related declines in attendance as the primary culprit.
But here, again, the problem is deeper than the pandemic alone. While the district has historically been one of the most efficient in the state, it also draws revenue it considers essential from unsustainable sources, like summer enrichment camps, camp outs and ticket sales.
Camps and ticket sales cannot be counted on forever. What if fewer students than usual want to attend a program? What if the football team is bad and nobody wants to watch them play?
No district could have anticipated the pandemic-related cancellations Lovejoy ISD was forced to endure, but if a district’s schools require a successful football team to function, then administrators are not using money properly.
And now students are suffering. Due to its financial hardships, Lovejoy ISD will be closing an elementary school.
Plano ISD is probably the worst offender. With revenues and expenditures exceeding the GDPs of some small island nations, the district should have enough money to cover student needs and then some.
But financial mismanagement clouds Plano ISD’s history. In 2013, Plano residents passed a tax increase because the district was eating itself alive with debt. The district has endured multiple years of budget deficits since then, but this fiscal year takes the cake.
Plano ISD will have a $19.6 million budget shortfall for the 2021-22 fiscal year, a number nearly twice this year’s deficit.
Plano will be able to raise teacher salaries, but after a $1.6 million cut to departments last year, a cut that the district blamed on the “uncertain future” of a world battling COVID-19, this will only go so far. Pandemic hardship is understandable, but the district is flailing to cover its basic costs, and it has no concrete plan for its financial future, which still includes a large amount of debt.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Sara Bonser has spent more time extolling the virtues of the Texas Schools Coalition, a group of school districts whose legislative priorities can be summarized as asking the state for more money and opposing school choice measures, instead of addressing the problem.
All three of these districts could take a hint from Plano’s northern neighbor, my alma mater, Frisco ISD.
Although Frisco ISD fell into the same trap of complaining to the state about charter schools instead of addressing parental concerns, it maintained a keen sense of fiscal responsibility throughout the pandemic.
FISD has budgeted a surplus of $4 million for FY 2021-22, which includes both 200 new staff members, and a $2,150 raise for teachers.
District leaders are mindful of their finances without neglecting the needs of students and teachers
Managing the pandemic was and is an enormous challenge, but North Texas districts have no excuse for mismanaging their finances, and taxpayers deserve a better answer than “we blame COVID.”
By following Frisco’s example, the Dallas-Fort Worth area can continue to have some of the best schools in the country, and do so on a budget.
Garion Frankel is a Frisco resident and a graduate student at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service with a concentration in education policy and management.