With no new funding from the state, Texas schools are breaking the bank to pay for teacher raises

Fifth graders at Jacobs Well Elementary School in Wimberley line up at the door as they prepare to walk back to their classroom from the science lab on Sept. 4, 2020. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas lawmakers ended this year’s regular legislative session without giving public schools any money for employee raises — so school districts are finding ways to give their workers modest raises, even if it means digging into their savings accounts.

“We’ve taken the position that in the absence of state leadership, we’re going to take care of our staff, even if it means that we have a deficit budget,” said Bobby Ott, superintendent of the Temple Independent School District.

Ott and his district’s school board are in the process of approving their budgets for the next school year. And for Temple ISD to give its teachers and other staff members a modest 3% raise, it will most likely have to adopt a deficit budget, meaning that its expenditures will outweigh its revenue. The decision would put the district in a $2.2 million hole, even after Ott asked his department heads to make cuts to their spending budgets.

“Passing a deficit budget is not sustainable,” Ott said. “Board policy stipulates that school districts keep a certain amount of fund balance or savings account.”

Still, school districts are digging into their savings to make their teachers feel valued as the state struggles to keep educators in the classroom.

While the average teacher salary has increased over the last decade, it has not kept up with the rate of inflation. Low pay, working overtime, health worries during the pandemic and being caught in the crossfire of Texas’ culture wars have led more teachers to leave the profession. As a result, classroom sizes have gotten bigger, and in some cases, schools are finding themselves struggling to find teachers.

In North Texas, Fort Worth ISD approved a budget last month with a $45 million deficit, with raises accounting for more than half of that amount. Frisco ISD also approved a $24 million deficit to pay for modest staff raises.

In Central Texas, Austin ISD approved a budget with a $52 million deficit to give employees a 7% raise. San Antonio ISD is giving its teachers raises between 3% and 9%, and it’s paying for them by slashing administrative jobs. In the much smaller Smithville ISD, about 45 miles east of Austin, board members approved a 4% raise that will leave the district with a deficit of more than half a million.

The raise “is important because that may be the most we can comfortably do right now, but it shows our teachers we’re trying to fight for them,” said Josh Magden, a Smithville ISD board member.

Many other school districts across the state find themselves in the same situation thanks to rising inflation, financial disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic and insufficient state funding. Even districts that are deemed property wealthy are contemplating closing schools and cutting extracurricular activities to save money. Some, like Fort Davis ISD, have closed their cafeterias.

Lawmakers didn’t approve extra money this year to help schools balance their budgets or pay for raises, despite having an unprecedented $32 billion surplus in their hands — and even after Gov. Greg Abbott commissioned a task force last year to improve teacher pay and retention.

The political fight over school vouchers derailed the only school funding bill that had a chance of passing.

That proposal, House Bill 100, authored by Ken King, R-Canadian, would have given teachers modest raises — an average of an extra $100 per month — and helped ease schools’ financial strains by raising the base amount of money schools get per student, retooling the state’s school funding formula and giving extra money to smaller school districts.

Districts across the state were hopeful the bill would pass and even delayed drafting their budgets or approving any raises until the legislative session had ended.

They were sorely disappointed. The bill died after Senate Republicans shoehorned a voucher-like program into their version of the legislation, a measure that the House vehemently opposed.

“When you’re sitting on $30 billion at the state level, there’s no reason public schools would not think that they’d get a dime,” Ott said.

But some hope still remains for them. Abbott has kept lawmakers in Austin for two special legislative sessions to pass property tax cuts. Last week, Senate Republicans added an amendment to their property tax bill that would give teachers in urban school districts a one-time bonus of $2,000 and those in rural districts $6,000 through the next two school years.

A similar proposal was brought up during the regular session in the form of Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe. At the time, teachers and unions criticized the use of a district’s size to decide which educators get the bigger bonus, saying it’s a scattershot way to determine who needs the money the most.

Abbott is expected to call another special session this year to push for school vouchers once more. The governor made vouchers one of his top legislative priorities this year, and his recent alignment with House Speaker Dade Phelan on how to cut property taxes could serve as the precursor of an alliance on the topic.

Phelan formed a committee to focus on identifying “educational opportunities” while also providing schools with more financial support. Committee members will meet publicly for the first time Tuesday.

Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a New Boston Republican who is in the committee, said a special session on public education would allow lawmakers to focus on finding a compromise. He said he'd prefer to discuss teacher raises in the committee than tacking them in any property tax legislation.

A Texas Tribune analysis shows that teachers in major suburban school districts get paid an average of about $61,432 a year and those in major urban school districts get paid an average of about $59,446 a year — almost $10,000 more than those teaching in rural areas. But costs of living are usually higher in larger metropolitan areas.

House Democrats announced another property tax plan Thursday that would increase the base allotment schools get per student, which would allow them to pay for teacher raises. But it’s unclear if the proposal will go through in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers, a group that represents about 66,000 teachers, support staff and higher education employees in the state, is urging lawmakers to pass the teacher pay proposals.

“I am grateful to see this issue addressed in a special session on property taxes as there should be no tension between property tax relief for homeowners and renters and adequate funding for their community schools,” Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said. “This state has enough money in the bank to do both. It merely lacks the political will.”

Some school districts have been able to pass raises and keep balanced budgets without dipping into their savings. Del Valle ISD approved a 6% raise for its employees for the upcoming school year, along with other perks like a $1,000 professional development stipend and discounted child care for teachers.

Annette Tielle, superintendent of Del Valle ISD, said the district did not have to rely on state lawmakers for funding because of the so-called Chapter 313 program, a business incentive plan that allowed school districts to give tax breaks to corporations that move into their areas. In return, schools get some of the company revenue.

Del Valle ISD has a partnership with electric automaker Tesla, which has a factory in the district’s bounds. The district received a sizable payment after the company’s property values were assessed higher than predicted.

Critics of the program said that while it has been great for some districts’ finances, it leads to unequal school funding as only districts lucky enough to attract corporations to their areas benefit.

The Chapter 313 program was allowed to expire last year, and lawmakers passed a new version during the regular session. The program requires a 10-year commitment but will phase out for participating school districts and corporations when that time is up.

While districts that have benefited from the Chapter 313 program will head into the year without financial headaches, others haven’t been able to afford teacher raises for quite some time.

In Fort Davis ISD, about 150 miles southwest of Odessa, Superintendent Graydon Hicks has not given a pay raise to his teachers since 2019, the last time the Legislature set aside money for it.

The small district of less than 200 students and about 20 teachers has been passing deficit budgets for the last nine years. This school year, it will be about $500,000 in the hole.

Already, the district has been running on the minimum requirements needed to operate. It doesn’t have a cafeteria, or art or tech programs. Hicks said there is nothing left to cut.

Hicks predicts the district will be out of money by next year. If that happens, Fort Davis ISD might end up being absorbed by a larger district.

“I’m just frustrated. I’m angry,” he said. “It’s a shame that we have politicians fighting for election talking points instead of fighting for the kids.”

Disclosure: Texas AFT has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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