Wealthy Texas schools didn't receive much federal pandemic aid. But costs are mounting, causing tight budgets.
As a “perfect storm” put the squeeze on Lovejoy ISD’s upcoming budget, administrators kept telling the school board and the community not to have too much hope that federal COVID-19 relief funds would resolve the district’s financial woes. Because of slowing enrollment, an unfavorable change in state funding formulas and pandemic-related expenses, Lovejoy faced multimillion-dollar shortfalls for the current school year and in its 2021-22 budget. The district needed to make big changes, interim Superintendent Dennis Womack and Chief Financial Officer Shay Adams argued. And while help from the state and federal governments was likely to be coming for school districts in Texas, such aid for Lovejoy probably wouldn’t be enough. With just 1.88% of Lovejoy students considered low income for this school year, officials braced for funds to be allocated using poverty as a metric. “Or that it’d be $11 billion,” Adams interjected. While the majority of Texas school districts celebrated the release of billions in federal aid to help students recover from the pandemic , about 40 school systems faced the reality that their campuses wouldn’t have any additional dollars to work with. The government released money to states based on Title I status — which is generally for campuses that serve high percentages of students living in poverty. Most Texas districts have at least one campus that qualifies, although some districts in the most affluent areas have none. School systems in this group are mostly small with student bodies numbering just a few hundred. North Texas’ Highland Park and Lovejoy are the largest districts included, with enrollments of roughly 6,820 and 4,350, respectively. Situated in a wealthy Dallas enclave, Highland Park ISD’s enrollment is 0.1% economically disadvantaged with no campus designated as a Title I school. The district doesn’t qualify for the federal education funding but COVID-19 expenses have mounted up, officials said. The Texas Education Agency hopes to find a solution for schools like Highland Park, although exactly what that may be is unclear. Soon after the state announced the release of the federal pandemic aid, Commissioner Mike Morath began hinting that his agency was searching for an answer for the excluded districts. Morath told superintendents on a late April phone call that state leadership has a “universal desire” to ensure every school system has pandemic expenses covered even if federal funds aren’t enough. “Commissioner Morath and other state leaders share a firm commitment to ensuring all school districts have access to funding to pay for their COVID-related costs,” TEA spokesman Frank Ward told The Dallas Morning News in an e-mail Wednesday. The agency is supporting the “legislative process that will determine the amounts and uses of funding available to districts to help ensure their recovery from the pandemic,” Ward noted. TEA officials anticipate all questions about federal and state education funding will be resolved by the end of session on May 31. Once legislators sort through how much money will go where, TEA will issue guidance and other supports in ensuing months, Ward said. Highland Park officials are hoping for an answer before they start summer school instruction in the next month or so. The district hopes to have some additional money to help recruit teachers for summer learning. “Unfortunately, this will strain an already tight budget,” spokesman Jon Dahlander said. “The challenge is recruiting teachers on a limited budget, and we’d like to be able to offer teachers more money for this important work.” The pandemic disproportionately impacted students living in poverty whose families sometimes had to grapple with unemployment, food scarcity and housing insecurity on top of finding an acceptable learning environment. While the total scope of learning loss is unknown, education experts speculate low-income students will have the biggest gap to close in future school years. That’s one reason lawmakers have advocated for more money to go to the most vulnerable students and the schools that serve them. But disruptions were widespread and the pandemic’s effect was not limited to low-income communities, officials with schools excluded from federal funding said. “Thankfully, we have fewer students than other districts who need to be caught up, but we still do have some,” Dahlander said. “So it’s not just limited to low-income students who have struggled during this. It’s something that has hit districts across the board.” Lovejoy administrators were quick to point out that using poverty as an indicator to distribute funds was “entirely reasonable,” but that they were hopeful — and still are — that something more could be done to help them and those in similar situations. The district spent $1.6 million in COVID-19-related spending, about 3% of its annual budget. About a third of that amount was used for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. To this point, Lovejoy has received $81,000 in COVID-19 relief but saw its state funding cut by the same amount. The district’s cash crunch has led to 15% across-the-board budget cuts, and trustees voted last month to close one of its three elementary schools. “We care about all the students of Texas, not just those in Lovejoy ISD,” Adams said. “And I firmly understand that [districts with] a higher percentage of qualified Title I, that’s a great way to equitably distribute funds, because there are students out there who, in educational situations, are going to have much larger learning gaps.” “But 100% of our students needed to be in clean facilities, and it didn’t matter what their income level was.” Stay connected to the latest in education by signing up for our weekly newsletter . The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas. The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.