Photo: Jason Hoekema, MBO
AUSTIN – Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Education Commissioner Mike Morath signaled Wednesday that the state will use rainy day funds to help schools saddled with Hurricane Harvey-related expenses, but the chances are slim that the state will delay state standardized tests planned for next spring.
Patrick, a Houston Republican, made vows to about 45 superintendents from storm damaged areas in southeast Texas that he would support holding funding at current levels for school districts losing students due to Harvey, and for increasing money for school systems gaining displaced students.
The challenge is figuring out how much money might be given to districts that lost students due to damaged buildings or families displaced by the storm, said Morath, leader of the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the education of more than 5 million public school students.
The state aid could help prevent deep financial cuts in the hardest-hit school districts, and it could keep districts’ “rainy day” funds intact. Several districts, including Houston and Aldine ISDs, dipped into their reserve funds this year to balance their budgets.
Morath said he’ll also have to figure out how much more to fund school systems accepting hundreds of students temporarily forced out of their communities.
“It’s kind of easy to pay people based on kids that are there,” said Morath. “But if you’re paying based on kids that aren’t there, you have to come up with some sort of rationale.”
Morath’s statements came one day after Patrick met with superintendents vowing state aid for storm-related costs not covered by insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In a news release sent late Wednesday, Patrick doubled down on that support but stopped short of promising the state would cover all costs not covered by insurance plans and federal agencies.
In a statement, Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said Patrick “made it clear that it was his goal for districts to be made whole financially, both in terms of funding related to student attendance and facility repairs.” District officials don’t have an estimate of storm-related costs, but Kingwood High School, home to 2,800 students, will be closed for at least several months due to flood damage.
“The state’s intent to protect schools will help make a very difficult year more manageable, and we are encouraged,” Fagen said.
About 1 in 4 public school students were attending schools in counties mauled by Hurricane Harvey’s winds or deluged by more than 50 inches of rain in parts of Houston in late August and early September.
In total, the governor has named 58 counties disaster areas. Nearly all Houston-area schools have reopened, although many were damaged.
Financial plan in works
In a briefing with the State Board of Education during its quarterly meeting, Morath said he’s about three weeks away from settling on a plan to keep finances stable for school districts slammed by the worst hurricane in Texas history.
Morath said the TEA can tap more state dollars without legislative approval, although state lawmakers will have to figure out how to fill the budget hole created by cleaning up after Harvey when they return in the 2019 legislative session.
The federal government has agreed to reimburse 90 percent of Harvey-related costs, leaving school districts to cover the remaining 10 percent. Expenses not covered by insurance or FEMA will have to come from local or state tax dollars.
After meeting with Patrick on Tuesday, Sheldon ISD Superintendent King Davis said the pledge of state aid “looks promising.” Davis’ district, which serves about 9,000 students in northeast Harris County, sustained damage to four of its nine campuses, including its only high school.
“I think the response has been very positive,” Davis said. “I feel like the support is there, so I’m pretty confident they’re going to follow through on what’s been conveyed to superintendents.”
Davis said state officials have also assured him the district won’t lose per-pupil funding if displaced students leave Sheldon and enroll elsewhere. Texas education code allows the TEA commissioner to alter a district’s attendance totals, which dictates per-student funding, when a natural disasters has “a significant effect” on the number.
Sheldon ISD staff expect relatively few departures after making contact with about 90 percent of students since the flood. Sheldon ISD is the only Houston-area district that hasn’t resumed classes. It plans to open its doors Monday.
“We feel very confident that the great, great majority of our students will return,” Davis said.
A source close to House Speaker Joe Straus said the San Antonio Republican plans in the coming days to assign the House Public Education Committee to look closely at the effect Harvey could have on schools and affected students.
Also at issue post-Harvey is what effect the hurricane’s disruption will have on standardized testing schedules. At this point, Morath said, it “doesn’t look likely that we’ll make too many changes” to the STAAR test or when it’s administered, although that could have a negative impact on Houston ISD and its hopes of staving off state intervention due to habitually failing schools.
“We haven’t made any final decisions,” Morath told the Houston Chronicle about moving back the STAAR test, which will contribute to an A through F grading scale used to measure school performance.
Ten consistently low-performing schools in HISD have one more school year to improve test scores before the state must close schools or take over the district’s school board, a reality that already had district officials on edge.
Morath said he has no intention on cutting those schools a break in this year’s testing season but that the TEA has yet to make any decisions on what to do with low-performing schools it has the legal authority to take over.
“The obligation to make sure we teach kids to read, write and do math is the same as it was before the storm,” Morath said.