Faced with an almost $19 million deficit in its $2 billion budget, Houston ISD administration has jettisoned a recommendation reached by its Joint Compensation Committee, and decided to back away from its plan to give out 1.5 percent raises to teachers and school employees.
Under the new plan, district police officers will get raises and teachers will get step increases ranging from $300 to $1,000. But other employees won't see anything at all. And no one, be it teacher, support personnel or members of the compensation committee was very happy about the last minute change at the budget agenda workshop Thursday night.
Displayed in a Hollywood Squares like setting, board members working remotely conducted a meeting beset by one technical glitch after another throughout the lengthy proceedings. Public speakers were unintentionally cut off or lost, dogs barked and children wailed in the background, the switch from one speaker to another didn't always go smoothly often overlapping last shots at the board with the incoming speaker introducing himself or herself. Trustees fared little better, often losing sound or abandoning their visual presence to try to boost the audio. Clearly a few more things need to be worked out in the age of the coronavirus.
By not giving out the 1.5 percent raises the district expects to save $16.6 million in the 2020-21 school year. So instead of the $26.2 million package that was in play in May, now trustees will be asked to approve a $9.6 million package on June 11. The district is making up the rest of the budget gap by decreasing its budget for vacant positions by more than $2.3 million.
The culprit in all this? The costs of COVID-19 both in terms of what it will take to provide social distancing and protective measures in schools and on buses, but also in the vastly decreased tax revenues expected from local businesses as well as taxpayers who lost their jobs during and after the stay-at-home orders.
Glenn Reed, chief financial officer for the district who took the trustees through the numbers Thursday, also pointed out that HISD has invested a lot in health benefits for its employees, contributing more than $9.3 million for 2020-21 and that is some money that could have otherwise gone for raises.
Addressing the board, Daniel Santos, a member of the compensation committee said: "Tonight's compensation package is a fraction of what the committee agreed to on May the 18th." He, as several other speakers did, referred to the discarded pay raise as necessary to attract the best personnel to the district.
"The administration has reneged on that proposal [agreed to by compensation committee members] and thrown away those months of collaborative work by its employees," said Andrew Dewey, a Houston Federation of Teachers representative. "we really don't need to hear again that you will make it right next year."
"This just another bait and switch by this board. Have you no shame?" demanded Coretta Fontenot. "Where is your credibility?"
"It is difficult to believe that HISD is genuinely interested in closing the achievement gap when it consistently fails to make it a budgetary priority to recruit and retain high quality teachers," said Christopher Williams, a teacher at Eastwood Academy High School and a compensation committee member. He said HISD could have approached the committee about looking for cuts. "Sadly, they did not."
Talking about what prompted the sudden departure from the committee recommendation — one that Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan's administration had initially supported — Reed said he had some conversations last week with the Texas Education Agency about what was going to happen with CARES Act money.
"All of us were probably expecting we were going to have some dollars from CARES Act to kind of help us get through 20-21," Reed said. "What happened is that the CARES Act dollars to the district, to all the districts, are not new funding." He said the state will be decreasing its allocation to the district by the amount of CARES Act funding HISD receives. So instead of an addition to funding, they're looking at a swap of funding sources basically.
"Without some dollars above for the next year, we are on our own for PPE for the district. We are on our own for cleaning supplies. We are on our own for additional cleaning schedules. We are on our own for any additional COVID-19-related costs," Reed said. "we are on our own for social distancing on buses."
"We now have costs in 20-21 that we were hoping to have some additional dollars for through the CARES Act that we do not have anymore. We are starting off with a balanced budget but we will be bringing to the board costs as we move into 20-21 costs that will create a deficit from COVID-19"
"Also getting more concerned about additional reduction in our taxable value and tax collection rate. There's continued closing of businesses, there's continued unemployment. How are both of those going to be impacted by another fall/winter spike that we keep reading about that will cause additional closings of businesses.""