Fort Bend ISD administrators must fully explain what circumstances led to a $47 million budget deficit and why asking residents to pay more taxes is the best solution if they want voters to approve a higher tax rate in November, argues one state legislator representing the county.
Questions are swirling in the days since the district’s board of trustees authorized placing a voter approval tax rate election on the November ballot about the reasoning behind the decision.
The issue even led to state Rep. Jacey Jetton weighing into the matter, criticizing the district’s decision in a press release last week.
“In periods of high inflation, you tighten your belts and cut back on expenses, which is something every American family is doing right now,” he wrote. “It is unacceptable for a school district that is not growing in student population to ask families to pay more in property taxes and grow the FBISD budget, when families are cutting their personal budgets to contend with rising food and fuel costs.”
In a conversation with the Star later last week, however, Jetton was more circumspect.
“I have concerns, but I will say that my rhetoric will be softer,” he said. “I just want to make clear to voters and taxpayers that property tax is a local tax – the school district is imposing this. If they want to raise it, they’re going to have to justify it.”
Essentially, if voters approve the ballot measure, the district’s maintenance and operations tax rate would actually remain the same as it was last year, at $1.21 per $100,000 of valuation, according to the district.
That would be about $1,210 per year for every $100,000 of valuation, according to the district.
But because of rising property values across the county, homeowners would still pay more in taxes and the measure would generate more revenues for the district.
Without the tax rate election, the district would receive about $28.3 million in additional revenue for the fiscal year, Trustee David Hamilton explained in a series of social media posts. But if approved, the district would garner an extra $69 million in revenue, Hamilton said.
“I voted yes on the VATRE because district administration communicated that passing the VATRE is the only way that we can meet our current financial obligations and deal with both inflation and higher transportation costs, while also increasing teacher pay to keep up with neighboring districts…” Hamilton said.
District leaders have argued the election is necessary to eliminate the district’s $47 million budget deficit, provide funding for new safety measures, increase teachers’ starting salaries up to $60,000 and provide supplemental pay to long-serving employees, according to the district.
The election is also part of a two-step plan to permanently eliminate the district’s deficit, according to administrators. The district has already reduced its spending by about $15.4 million and plans to make further reductions, according to a news release.
Some residents have criticized the decision, arguing the district should make further cuts before raising property taxes.
“Instead of excessively billing the people of Fort Bend County, FBISD should look at eliminating some of the top level positions,” one resident wrote to the Star. “Too many superintendents and other staff at the top with bloated salaries are a financial drain on the district.”
Administrators will need to do a good job of explaining the history that brought the district to this point, Jetton argued. And it’s important to recognize that this isn’t pandemic-related, he said.
“Some of the conversations have been about this being the result of COVID,” Jetton said. “But I firmly reminded district leaders that both school years during COVID were covered by the state.”
District leaders blame the size of the deficit on a combination of previous spending on new programming and a decline in the number of students attending the district and more.
Essentially, the district spent about $40 million on new programming and had been instituting teacher salary increases to keep pace with the market, but a quickly-growing student population helped make that possible, according to the district.
That all changed with the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
The district saw its first material deficit in the 2021 fiscal year and now the shortfall has grown to be about $49 million, according to the district.
The student enrollment the most recent school year was about 2,100 fewer children than expected, according to the district. District demographers estimated the enrollment would be about 79,700, but the year started with about 77,500 enrolled students, according to the district.
That number increased to about 78,650 by the end of the school year – higher than the pre-pandemic enrollment – but not enough to reach where demographers expected, according to the district.
The board of trustees has approved an almost $768 million budget for the school year, according to documents.