The Killeen Independent School District is facing some difficult decisions in the coming months — and not all associated with the current coronavirus outbreak.
Certainly, the social-distancing mandates that have been enacted to limit the virus’ spread have had a dramatic impact on the district’s students, teachers and staff.
Classroom instruction has been called off for the remainder of the school year, proms were canceled and the long-held tradition of walking across a stage at graduation has been scrapped in favor of virtual ceremonies.
Along the way, the district postponed its school board election to November along with a proposed $265 million bond initiative.
For the time being, many of the school district’s operations have been redirected online or put on hold. No doubt, the question of how to continue the teaching process in the fall looms large.
But one of the biggest challenges facing the district heading into the next school year may be the budget.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Superintendent John Craft proposed increasing the district’s maximum class size ratio to 26 students to one teacher, from the current 23:1 ratio. He noted the district could no longer afford to staff classrooms at the current ratio.
The board voted unanimously to approve the change, which will involve cutting more than 150 teaching positions — 65.5 of them at the high school level.
Considering that starting teachers are paid $50,300 annually — with some veteran teachers earning considerably more — eliminating 154 teaching positions will result in a savings of at least $7.7 million.
But where is this concern over salaries coming from?
After all, the district last year approved a $475 million budget, with an increase of $33.1 million in expenditures over the 2018-20-19 budget. The 2020 budget included $16.8 million in raises for district staff, with $11.9 million of that going to teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses. At the time, the district announced it employed about 2,800 teachers.
Less than a year after authorizing those salary increases, why is the school district now looking to cut staff?
Part of the answer may have to do with state funding.
The state Legislature last year approved House Bill 3, which provided funds that would give every teacher in the state an extra $5,000 in salary per year. Under terms of the bill, Under HB 3, districts must increase compensation for employees and lower maintenance and operation tax rate to receive the funding, which for KISD amounted to more than $20 million.
That money is expected to come to the district again this year, but unless the Legislature acts to renew the bill when it meets next spring, that gravy train will come to a halt in 2021.
Federal money plays a part in the equation as well.
The district last year received $46 million in Federal Impact Aid, which is paid to districts adjacent to tax-exempt federal property, such as military installations. According to the aid formula, the district must have at least 35 percent of its students connected to the military to receive full funding. However, Killeen ISD is expected to fall below that number this year, and the total amount of aid is projected to drop in coming years.
Still, even in the face of all this future economic uncertainty, the district is not holding back on construction spending.
Voters in 2018 approved $426 million in construction bonds, and the district is in the midst of several projects, including the building of two consolidated school campuses, the $99 million renovation of Killeen High School and the construction of the district’s fifth traditional high school, which will open off of Chaparral Road in 2022.
Now a second proposed bond — which would fund construction of two new elementary schools, the rebuilding of Harker Heights and Peebles elementaries, the renovation of Ellison High School and upgrades to three high school stadiums — is on hold, at least until the November election.
But the district has not discussed scrapping plans to spend more than $110 million from its Strategic Facilities Fund to build a new elementary school, a new middle school and upgrade the stadium at the new high school.
It’s time to bring those projects back up for discussion — and take them off the table, perhaps indefinitely.
Going ahead with these construction projects would effectively wipe out the district’s reserves at a time when the funding may be needed elsewhere — especially given the economic uncertainty that has enveloped the community amid the current public health crisis.
Craft recently said the district needed to reprioritize in the face of the ongoing coronarivus outbreak — and he’s right.
But part of those shifting priorities should involve making sure students have every opportunity to succeed when they return to the classroom — and reducing the number of teachers and increasing class sizes seems contrary to that goal.
Placing more students in a classroom also makes social distancing more difficult, a concept that should be maintained even after the virus has receded later this year.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the closing of schools and the canceling of the latest proposed school bond issue, the district apparently faced some financial challenges. But in authorizing a second proposed bond issue, the school board and administration effectively kicked the can down the road, counting on district residents to take on the extra tax burden before federal and state funding started drying up.
Asking taxpayers to foot the bill for nearly $700 million in school construction in a span of two years was an ill-advised strategy to begin with, but with the local economy staggered by the coronavirus shutdown, it may be best to cancel the second bond altogether, as Craft himself has conceded.
The district’s administration has had a lot to deal with in the past two months, and in many respects they’ve responded admirably to the current health crisis — transitioning to online learning options, adjusting meeting protocols, offering “grab and go” meals to students in the absence of lunchroom operations, and setting up procedures to conduct virtual graduations.
But increasing class sizes because of budget issues seems like an unfortunate choice — both from an educational and public health standpoint.
Certainly, the district will have to consider the establishment of new campus protocols once school resumes, including cleaning and sanitizing of shared classroom items, student-teacher interaction and lunchroom guidelines.
None of these protocols will be made easier to follow by having more children in each class.
But these and other challenges must be addressed and met if our community’s students are to receive the quality education they deserve — in the safest environment possible.
And budget considerations should have little to do with it.