Now that the Houston ISD school board trustees and their administration have decided not to squirrel away quite so many dollars in their general fund and instead spend a chunk of that money on the district's children and teachers, people might understandably believe that a prosperous new day has dawned, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and everyone's ship is coming into port.
Or perhaps not just yet.
The devil is always in the details and if Thursday's "Budget Workshop #5" had anything to teach us it is that new superintendents often find their grand visions stymied by elected trustees with minds, plans and sacred cows of their own; that people preparing for their chance to talk don't always listen to what other people are saying, and that even after years of skyped-in attendance (preceding even the pandemic), you can still count on remote communications to crap out as they did for trustee Elizabeth Santos Thursday.
If he were a man given to whimsical comedy — and there has been absolutely no evidence of that to date — Superintendent Millard House II should have set up a drinking game based on how many times a trustee asked a version of: "Where did the $300 million surplus come from?"
They were referring, of course, to the recent Houston Chronicle report
by Alejandro Serrano about the audit that found there was $300 million sitting safely in the cash-strapped district's general fund — thanks in large part to overestimations of payroll costs — in a district with declining enrollment and teacher pay that is among the lowest in the region.
A Q and A document provided to the board in advance of the meeting explained that the $300 million was "the difference between budgeted surpluses / deficits and actual year-end surpluses and deficits over the course of five years. No new funds were identified." And that "These results have been reported to the board and the public as part of HISD's annual financial report, and the resulting fund balance has been explained to the board in detail during budget workshops this year (beginning on page 7 of the March 3rd budget workshop and then on slide 46 of the March 24th budget workshop presentation)."
The administration even provided links to their prior presentations to prove they'd told all and weren't hiding the money in a secret cache. It didn't matter. The Q an A didn't matter and it didn't matter whether House made a run at explaining the origins of the money or tossed the question over to Chief Financial Officer Glenn Reed. Even trustees who had already been on the board approving the budget in prior years and in this year's previous workshops seemed gobsmacked by the information that they'd been sitting on a minor treasure trove — thanks in large part to an influx of $133 million in one-time, no-strings-attached Hurricane Harvey relief money.
Other recurring themes:
Superintendent House's dreams of significantly overhauling how pupil funds are allocated seem dead in the water at least for now. He's already stepped back from his original plans for the 2022-23 budget which would have centralized school funding instead of leaving it to the discretion of individual principals. Several trustees repeated that even in House's search for equity, they did not want to see any alteration in the PUA (campus per unit allocation) which gives extra money to schools with students who have special needs. In a never-say-die moment, House volunteered that in some point in the future even PUA might have to be looked at to balance the budget but got no amens from the crowd at the table.
Yes, House and his administration are going to look at the district's magnet system to an attempt to make it more equitable across the district but it's not something they are rushing into. He predicted it would take a year of study before they'd be able to come up with a plan, saving that particular landmine-filled territory for a later date.
Trustees are concerned that there be a tracking mechanism in place to ensure that with the new staffing requirements —a librarian or media services specialist, nurse and counselor at every campus — are actually carried out. And there were questions again about wiggle room, such as does a really a small campus really need a counselor? House assured solemnly that yes, it does. (The state is also requiring schools to staff physical education and fine arts teachers).
Several trustees sounded the alarm over what they saw was a lack of urgency and no specific plan about building back up the number of students enrolled in the district. Under state funding, a school district takes a hit if it has fewer students or they aren't in attendance — although the state is still giving districts a "hold harmless" waiver as long as they "maintain or increase current levels of on-campus attendance" following the steep decline during the height of the pandemic. House assured them that the district's efforts are ongoing to help students and their families find their way back to HISD.
Even though the district is now ready to spend more rather than hoard all of its reserves, it still faces its perennial problem of balancing its budget. House, who is determined that HISD should not "keep kicking the can down the road" wants to see an end to the district operating on a deficit budget and has proposed $60 million in central office savings as a way to mitigate any cuts he is and will be asking individual campuses to make.
"We know we're going to have to make some difficult decisions in coming months," House said Thursday. Meanwhile, the district's 2022-23 budget
remains a work in progress.