Every June the HISD Board of Education must pass a budget for the next school year. Over the past decade, this has been a contentious conversation among Board members and with district administration. Passing the Budget has come down to the wire and/or involved last-minute amendments, which were not tested for sustainability, for several years. The process has improved in the last two years, allowing the Board to unanimously pass the operating budget several weeks ahead of the July 1st deadline. This year, the Board was even able to collaborate and compromise to provide teachers with a modest $2,500 raise, along with the step increases proposed by administration, but not without amendments from the dais.
We applaud this progress but must recognize that the district budget has a long way to go to be both financially stable and focused on meeting student needs. With a new Superintendent and an entire year to plan, we hope the Board commits to stewardship and leadership and propose the following specific priorities for the trustees to consider for the 2022-2023 budget:
Start the budget process early. Principals set their campus budgets for the next school year in the spring before the Board even votes on the district budget in June. We understand that certified values for taxes and exact numbers for other revenue sources are not available until the end of the year; however, discussions about priorities for the budget must begin early. The Board and administration should be on the same page before the budget is proposed to avoid last-minute amendments. No matter how well-intentioned, none of the current trustees has a background in finance, specifically school district finance, and therefore should not be making large amendments to the budget without consulting district experts and collaborating to reach a solution.
- Increase – or at least stop cutting – the PUA. The Per Unit Allocation (PUA), or the money allocated for each student’s learning, has been cut several times over the last decade. While there have been adjustments for increases in employee salaries, those increases do not add funding for additional positions on campuses or resources for students. If salary adjustments are excluded, the base PUA has been cut by $455 per student over the last decade. HISD’s failure to prioritize students is clear when compared to other school districts. As of the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent data aggregated by the Texas Education Agency, HISD only spent $4,600 per student on instructional expenses across all departments and campuses. Other school districts prioritize much more for student instruction. For example, Dallas spent $5,109, Katy spent $5,679, and Cypress-Fairbanks spent $5,153. The Board must find a way to make student learning the number one priority for the district.
- Increase base teacher salaries. Despite the $2,500 salary increase for next year, Houston ISD continues to struggle to stay competitive in the region, leading to significant vacancies each year. Our teachers work hard and are the employees with the greatest direct impact on student outcomes. They should also be a top priority for the district. Next year, beginning teachers in HISD are expected to receive $54,369, compared to $56,000 in Cypress-Fairbanks, $55,525 in Katy, and $55,550 in Fort Bend. While it might take some tough cuts in other areas, HISD must be able to fill vacancies, attract effective educators, and adequately compensate teachers.
- Pass a sustainable budget. The district has had difficulty, even prior to the pandemic, passing a balanced budget. The truth is HISD has finite resources. While all of us should keep advocating for the state to focus more funding on public education, we must also take a hard look at the district’s annual budget in the meantime. The Board, in collaboration with administration, must allocate funding based on its priorities. That means passing a balanced budget and retaining at least three months of operating expenses to account for emergency spending, which is especially necessary in Houston considering the natural disasters the district has faced in past years.
- Use all available resources wisely. Even though the district is working within constraints for the budget, there are areas that might be a good focus for cutting spending or other revenues that the district could pursue. HISD spends a lot of money on external contractors compared to other districts. The district spent close to 15% of its annual budget on contracted services in the 2018-2019 school year. At the same time, Dallas spent around 8%, Katy spent 5%, and Cypress-Fairbanks spent 5%. A close look at contract spending could yield savings for the district. Additionally, HISD is in the middle of pursuing Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) funding, which would allow campuses with highly effective teachers to receive additional funding specifically for compensation. This will not fully cover necessary employee salary increases, but it is a pool of money that is available from the state that HISD could tap into like most other districts in the state.