Brownsville ISD pursues spending cuts to reduce budget

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Pre-kindergarten teacher Betty Guerrero at Alfredo L. Villareal Elementary School prepares for the 2021-2022 school year Friday at the entrance of her classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

As Brownsville ISD lays plans to cut $20 million from a $450 million operating budget, it also should lock in spending for major maintenance and technology replacement, Superintendent Jesus H. Chavez said at a budget meeting this week.

The meeting on Wednesday was the third leading up to the June 30 deadline for BISD to adopt its 2024-2025 budget. The amount of expenditures the district is able to cut will determine how much will have to be made up with fund balance.

The district is facing added challenges again this year due to no increase in state funding for public education. Additionally, BISD must use higher state-mandated property values rather than Cameron County Appraisal District values to calculate local spending.

As part of the process, BISD will consolidate three pairs of schools in Southmost, resulting in potential savings of $1 million per pair, but has also made a commitment to spend additional money to upgrade curriculum at the receiving schools.

“You have heard me talk about we want to spend some additional dollars at these three receiving schools, but there are other needs that we have at other schools as well. I want to talk to you about the idea of committing some dollars on an annual basis,” Chavez said, referring also to the need to spend some $83 million on major maintenance at schools across the district.

Meanwhile, as became evident during the pandemic, BISD depends on technology devices, mainly laptop computers to deliver instruction. As the devices wear out they have to be replaced.

Chavez said BISD should consider using BISD’s often talked about fund balance to establish a technology replacement schedule.

“We as a district have not put dollars into this. Thank god for ESSER funds, which allowed us to somewhat catch up, but I would say we’ve caught up only a third to a half of what we need to be doing,” he said.

Chavez urged the Board of Trustees to consider using 1% or 2% of the district’s fund balance every year to purchase new devices.

As for the $83 million in needed new roofs and other projects, Chavez and Chief Financial Officer Alejandro Cespedes pointed out that BISD has paid off bonded debt, placing it in position to go out for a bond issue to fund such projects.

Second grade teacher Graciela Muñoz at Alfredo L. Villareal Elementary School prepares for the 2021-2022 school year Friday as Muñoz displays a sanitation station for her students at the entrance of her classroom amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

During the meeting, Cespedes summarized the process BISD is following to cut the budget.

Meanwhile, the standoff at the Legislature over public school funding continues. Gov. Greg Abbott and his allies are insisting on approval of a school voucher plan as a condition for releasing about $4 billion in public school funding.

In the meantime, the basic school funding allotment remains unchanged since 2019 at $6,160 per student, assuming the child attends 100% of the time.

But BISD has an attendance rate of about 87%, meaning the allotment becomes about $5,700 per child, Cespedes said.

Chavez commended BISD’s administrative staff on the work done so far on the budget. He said elementary, middle school and high school committees are making progress on a list of proposed cuts to be presented to the board along with operational and curriculum and instruction cuts.

Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, U.S. Rep Vicente Gonzalez’s office announced preliminary Title I formula funding for school districts in South Texas. Chavez and Cespedes said BISD could not use the money to keep the consolidated schools in Southmost open.

Gonzalez, D-Brownsville, made the funding announcement April 12, including that BISD had received a preliminary award of nearly $31 million.

However, Chavez and Cespedes said the funds are not “new” money and that in any case they could not be used to fund school operations.

“Our district is not expecting $30 million. If you look at the history here, $25.9, $25.4 the last two years. … I was thinking to myself, what would you be doing if this was new money? I would be dancing in the street. I would probably be dancing here in the board room.” Chavez said at the meeting.

By law, the funds are supplemental and cannot be used for school operations. If they were, BISD would have to give them back,” he said.

Trustee Carlos Elizondo had posted the announcement to Facebook. Later, he asked to have an action item placed on the board’s May 7 agenda to discuss keeping Cromack, Del Castillo and Garza elementary schools open by redirecting money from other areas.

Elizondo contended the board had not sufficiently considered all options when it decided to consolidate the schools.

In an interview Wednesday morning, Chavez and Cespedes sought to tamp down any misunderstanding, saying the funds are part of an annual allocation and already dedicated to ongoing programs.

“The public needs to understand, we’re not anticipating receiving $30 million dollars. We anticipate getting around $26 million. … It is not new money. It is the annual allocation of federal funds,” Chavez said

“I know we’ve been going through consolidation of schools, so someone out there may be thinking why are they closing schools? They have money. Well, It’s already been spent and dedicated,” he said.

“Here’s the main clarification, because we’ve already received some questions, can’t you use some of those dollars instead of closing schools? And the answer is no. The federal programming has dedicated purposes. We’ve already made commitments over a long history of education that we have some supplemental services that we provide, and so, no, you can’t use those dollars for operational, it’s against the federal rules,” he said.

During the meeting, Cespedes said the preliminary announcement fit a historical pattern where final awards are announced in late May or early June and made in November. He showed a virtually identical announcement from 2023 in which only the numbers were different, and traced the history of BISD Title I awards.

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