Local school districts are dealing with huge budget deficits due to a drop in attendance this year, including a $360,000 shortfall for the Burnet Consolidated Independent School District. A “hold harmless” ruling by the Texas Education Agency this week will allow districts to use past attendance figures to fund current classes, saving them from lost income.
Under the hold harmless concept, the state will continue to provide funding to public schools through the spring semester based on student attendance numbers projected before the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed schools in March 2020. State and federal funding for schools is determined by student enrollment and daily attendance.
“This move is important for districts to provide continuity of services as we continue to manage a historic level of uncertainty in public schools,” said Dr. Chris Allen, superintendent of the Marble Falls Independent School District. “This ‘hold harmless’ will buffer school districts in general and (MFISD) specifically from budget loss due to decreased enrollment associated with COVID-19 concerns.”
The Burnet CISD school board recently tapped into its fund balance to cover projected losses this spring related to student numbers. Now, it can return the money for future use.
“The extension of the hold harmless provision for the spring semester will be a huge benefit to Burnet CISD, especially for the current budget,” BCISD Superintendent Keith McBurnett said. “Without the hold harmless provision, the district had been projecting a $360,000 current-year deficit because of a dip in student enrollment due to COVID.”
The hold harmless funding is available to schools “as long as (districts) maintain or increase current levels of on-campus attendance,” Gov. Greg Abbott said.
This marks the third semester the state has provided funding to districts based on pre-pandemic student attendance projections and not on current numbers. The governor and TEA maintained the funding levels for the 2020 spring semester, the 2020 fall semester, and now the 2021 spring semester.
“As more districts return to in-person instruction, we are ensuring that schools are not financially penalized for declines in attendance due to COVID-19,” Abbott stated in a media release. “Providing a hold harmless for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year is a crucial part of our state’s commitment to supporting our school systems and teachers and getting more students back in the classroom.”
While hold harmless definitely helps this academic year, McBurnett said his district is still staring at a $500,000 budget deficit for the coming school year. Not to worry, he added.
“Several years ago, the Board of Trustees assigned $1 million in fund balance to address future shortfalls in state revenue,” McBurnett said. “Because all the data indicates that the student enrollment dip will fully recover by the 2022-2023 school year, the District would be able to cover the projected deficit next year out of this assigned fund balance.”