With a gloomy financial picture looming in Texas, Ector County Independent School District Superintendent Scott Muri said he’s expecting to have to make some tough choices in the coming few years.
Speaking during a discussion at Tuesday night’s workshop, Muri said the Texas budget shortfall could be as much as $25 billion. He added that education makes up about 52 percent of the state budget.
Board members were asked to voice their budget priorities as well which centered on keeping quality education in the forefront for students, playing defense to hold on to programs the district believes in and not lay off personnel.
President Delma Abalos was unable to attend. Vice President Tammy Hawkins served as president.
“Right now, no one really knows how bad it will be, but we do know we’re going to have some type of negative impact,” Muri said.
If the economy starts to accelerate again, Muri said that would be good, but the legislature will have finished their session.
Chief Financial Officer Deborah Ottmers said the district may not know the financial picture before it has to adopt its budget. She anticipates it will be about a $300 million general fund again.
Muri said there has been talk among some lawmakers about districts using their fund balances to make up any state funding shortfall.
Over the last couple of years, Muri said ECISD’s fund balance has risen dramatically largely because of job vacancies.
As of today, Muri said ECISD’s fund balance is where it should be in that it has funds to pay employees and bills for almost three months.
He added that this will help on the bond market if that is something the district decides to do and it will give the district a sense of surety in a crisis.
If the district used its fund balance, it could be in jeopardy. He added that there are some districts with large fund balances and others that don’t have the fund balances they need.
But Muri said legislators have talked about having school districts use their fund balances to make up for a loss in state funding.
Muri said if ECISD uses its fund balance it would put the district in jeopardy. There are some districts with large fund balances, but others have fund balances below what they need.
“We’ll be watching that. I’ve already talked to our local officials to let them know that’s a bad idea,” Muri said. “It would be harmful to a district like ours.”
He added that as the session goes on, the district will know more what it will be able to do.
“We may have to do some scaling back this year,” Muri said. “It may be more of a budget season of needs rather than wants.”
Muri said he’s concerned about the financial picture for the short term, but believes the state will come out of it a little bit better and faster.
Ottmers said at this point ECISD is down about 2,200 students. “We’re hopefully we’ll get some of those back, but we just don’t know,” she said.
She said it’s estimated that ECISD will start with a $300 million budget in the general fund, but if the state decided to cut 1 percent that’s going to be $3 million.
Ottmers said she and Muri would update the board monthly.
Muri said there is already talk of delaying or removing some of the funding from items like the Teacher Incentive Allotment, part of House Bill 3, prekindergarten and additional school day funding, all of which ECISD is planning on having.
He added that cuts made in 2011 had a significant impact on student achievement.
Trustee Carol Gregg, who attended virtually, said her priorities are teacher compensation and salaries for employees. She said the district has asked a great deal from its staff this year and she wants to do the best they can to compensate them.
Board member Steve Brown said he thought attrition would take care of a lot of the compensation concerns.
Executive Director of Human Resources Staci Ashley said 450 to 600 employees resign or retire on average every year.
“We’re just beginning to recover from the staff shortages we’ve had over the last three to five years,” Brown said. “It’s critical we encourage our teachers to stay on with us through paycheck and other incentives. …”
Trustee Chris Stanley who also attended virtually, said he’d like to echo what Brown said.
“The hope is we can find a way to absorb without the perception of punishment; not taking something away or releasing people. I don’t where you would cut. I think we’re running a pretty sparse ship already,” Stanley said.
Board member Donna Smith said she would like for employee morale to be a priority. She said morale is not necessarily tied to a paycheck.
“If we can figure out how to make their lives better, how to understand their positions more deeply and what they’re struggling with. I think everything really is a budget priority, whether it’s directly tied to money or not,” Smith said.
Schools of Choice and where to go in the future also was discussed.
Assistant Superintendent of Student and School Support Alicia Syverson said ECISD is rebranding magnet in favor of choice schools. Quoting an Odessa American article, Syverson said choice schools started 40 years ago as a district promise to continue the work of equity in schools across the district.
“Those words came from the mouth of Gene Collins at the end of the desegregation order,” Syverson said.
Syverson said the choice program gives students a chance to explore their unique talents and interests. Some of those talents and interests would go unrecognized or unexplored if that chance wasn’t provided in ECISD.
Robin Garcia, executive director of student and school support, said there are 13 choice schools currently and presenters reviewed them and what they offer.
As the district builds out its future choices in ECISD, it wants to look at multiple pieces of data to make decisions going forward, Syverson said.
She noted that there are some schools that are over overcapacity in enrollment and have waiting lists such as Milam and Reagan elementary schools.
Cameron Dual Language elementary and Austin Montessori also have waiting lists.
Syverson said Superintendent Scott Muri has said that they have to have one foot in the present and one in the future.
In doing this, Syverson said they will need input from stakeholders, students and families and consider workforce demands as well. Changes in enrollment and available enrollment capacity will play a role.
The board discussed whether there should be more magnet options. Trustees talked about having middle and elementary school International Baccalaureate programs, which have been considered before.
Board member Donna Smith said she felt like the strict had migrated more toward neighborhood schools since 1980 and that there was a disparity between east and west side campuses.
Trustee Steve Brown noted that the demographics from 1980 to 2020 are so different.
“It’s interesting to look at our choice schools,” Brown said. “They have changed and evolved some of them multiple times. I think that’s a reflection of the district … giving the community what they’ve asked for.”
Conceptually, Muri said, that should be what choice is about — reflecting the choices that parents make.