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EISD looks into waiver for transition period

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As the fall semester begins online, Elgin ISD is looking forward to the next step towards at least some on-campus instruction.

At least some students will be returning to Elgin ISD school campuses on September 21, but the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is allowing an additional four-week transition period for school systems that believe that it would be safest to continue restricting access to on-campus instruction past the first four weeks of remote-only schooling. A decision to extend the transition period would be made based on guidance from local health officials.

In a letter from the school district to parents dated August 19, parents are asked to give their feedback to the school district this week. Through a platform called Thoughtexchange, parents are asked to anonymously share what considerations they think should be made as the school district considers filing the waiver for the four-week transition period. Participants can also see other responses and rate the thoughts they think are important.

During the public comment portion of the Elgin ISD board meeting on Monday, August 17, submitted comments from four teachers were read, each asking the school district to request the four-week waiver from TEA in order to delay the beginning of in-person instruction. Three of the teachers also asked the school district to reconsider requiring teachers to work from campus when it is not necessary to do so and they are able to work from home.

However, later in the meeting when the topic of the four-week waiver came up, Elgin ISD Superintendent Jodi Duron clarified that campuses would not remain closed to students during the second four-week period as they are now. Under TEA’s guidance, at least some students must be in the school buildings during the four-week transition period in order for the school district to remain funded, Duron said. 

“We're looking at this from two standpoints,” Duron said. “One, from a funding mechanism: we have to make sure we remain whole and we can pay our staff and we can continue to keep our enrollment numbers up, which drives our budget. The other side of that is the safety component ... there is that concern about safety, and I recognize it and we honor that, which is why we've taken a very measured approach to how we are staging our return back to school. But right now, the option for us to say 'we're going to stay closed for the semester' is not an option. We won't get funded.”

Elgin ISD is also balancing TEA’s requirements with the guidance being given by Travis and Bastrop counties, Duron said. 

The waiver from TEA asks the school district what local public health conditions would allow the school district to transition to more in-person learning faster; Elgin ISD’s waiver application states that they would follow the guidance from local health authorities, taking a phased approach based on Austin Public Health’s guidelines. Elgin ISD’s schools will “increase capacity to the next higher percentage if able to safely do so and can remain at each percentage level for a minimum of two weeks before moving to the next least restrictive level,” the waiver application says.

Currently, Travis County is in stage four of Austin’s guidelines, meaning schools can have 25% of their students participating in on-campus learning, Duron said, while stage three would allow up to 50% of students.

Only about 40% of students have opted for in-person instruction.
If campuses can only have 25% capacity, Elgin ISD would have to prioritize which students would first be let into the buildings, Duron said. Some ideas she said have been discussed are prioritizing

younger students, special education students or students from households where there would not be an adult in the house during the day.

“It would be the administration looking at prioritizing who we want to enter the building first,” Duron said. “Whether or not we have kids in the building is not a choice. We have to have kids in the building starting week five.

“We take the safety seriously, but we also know TEA and Texas is pushing us forward to get school going, so we’re following that guidance as carefully as we can.”


New budget, tax rate adopted

Also on August 17, the school board held a public hearing on the district’s budget and tax rate for the 2020-2021 school year, after a presentation and discussion led by Elgin ISD chief financial officer Debra George.

The 2020-21 budget totals $49,119,714, an increase of 1.8% from last year. The payroll portion of the budget increased by 4.7% percent, or $1,776,275; George said this increase is largely due to raises for staff and the cost of the new Elgin Intermediate School. The non-payroll portion of the budget decreased by 8.8%, or $915,099.

Revenue this year totals $49,512,600, an increase of 0.7%, with 2.4% more than last year from local sources, 0.1% less than last year from state sources and the exact same as last year from federal sources. Nearly $400,000 of the revenue is unappropriated. 

The budget and revenue projections are based on property values and estimated student enrollment, George said. The 2020 certified property values of the district were over $1.6 billion, a 9.03% increase from the previous year. The budget is also based on a “very conservative estimate” of 50 more students, a 1.1% increase, bringing the total projected enrollment to 4,600. The budget per student is $10,678, a 0.7% increase from the previous year’s budget.

The proposed revenue for the debt service fund, which is for voter-approved bond payments, is $7,048,187, while the proposed debt service payments are $7,132,825; the net difference will be paid from the debt service fund balance, George said.

The Child Nutrition Fund, a self-sustaining fund that generates local revenue and receives state aid and federal reimbursement, has a proposed revenue of $3,299,794 and a proposed budget of $3,193,694.

The proposed budget for capital projects is $660,401, which will be used to finish projects that are underway and will be almost done this year, George said; this includes finishing the Phoenix High School modular building and the portables for Neidig and Booker T. Washington elementary schools.

The proposed maintenance and operation tax rate for 2020-21 is $1.0125 per $100 of value, more than a five cent decrease from the 2019-20 rate of $1.0683. Including the interest and sinking rate of $0.4482, the total proposed tax rate is $1.4607. As an example, a $100,000 home that did not increase in value this year would see a decrease in school district property taxes of $57.67.

Before voting on the tax rate, board member J.D. Harkins pointed out that the motion on the agenda item reads that the tax rate will increase, although it is decreasing. The property values are increasing, while the tax rate is decreasing. George said the motion has to be written that way, and the required language in the motion comes from the state comptroller.

The board adopted both the budget and the tax rate as presented with two unanimous votes.