The biggest problem facing the Fort Worth ISD School Board in the near future is almost certainly addressing budget shortfalls.
The district faces a budget deficit of over $80 million. Enrollments are declining, which means less funding from the state. And the district is giving excess property taxes from local taxpayers back to the state under the Robin Hood Act.
Eight candidates are vying for seats on three single-member school boards that have a say in how the Fort Worth ISD gets out of a tight financial situation.
Superintendent Angelica Ramsey has launched a move to balance the budget. After losing nearly 15,000 students since 2017, she’s cutting extra work to reorganize her school district into something leaner and more cost-effective.
Admission is the basis for many financial decisions. School districts receive funding based on the number of students attending the school.
The Fort Worth ISD has lost one-third of its state funding since 2019, when the Texas legislature passed sweeping school finance reform legislation. Between 2019 and 2023, the district lost more than $129.6 million in state funds.
Chief Financial Officer Carmen Arrieta-Candeleria is working to move district budgets to an approach called zero-based budgeting. This means that all expenses within the budget should be justified and the budget should be balanced.
District 2 candidate Pat Carlson said she was more responsible for taxpayer funds than her opponent, incumbent Tobi Jackson.
Carlson points to the school district’s practice of hiring teachers from other countries as an unnecessary expense. She said the Fort Worth ISD has good teachers in its backyard who stay for years.
The school board on March 28 was set to consider a contract worth about $1.5 million for legal services to navigate immigration law. The item has been removed from consideration.
“I think it’s a waste of money,” Carlson said.
Jackson expects the 2023-24 budget to be tight. She said her goal is to avoid going into the red when spending exceeds income.
School boards and top administrators are looking at ways to save money, Jackson said. For example, districts are likely to switch health insurers to find better, more cost-effective plans, she said.
“Part of it is the restructuring, which saves a lot of money,” Jackson said. “That’s one more reason I’m running for him because I want to be here to support it and support the Superintendent.”
Focusing on students and their academic performance will ease the Fort Worth ISD’s finances, said District 3 candidate Mar’Tayshia James.
James wants to see how funding affects the performance of each school in the district and apply what’s working well to other campuses.
“If you’re focused on giving your kids what they need, and you’re doing it, you’ll have higher enrollment rates and get the funding they need,” James said.
That should draw more families to the Fort Worth ISD, James said.
Incumbent Quinton Phillips said the Fort Worth ISD is in good financial standing as the district is an A on the state’s accountability system for school finances.
However, the first-term trustee conceded that the school district has been running a deficit as long as he has been on the school board.
“In the next budget cycle, with a new CFO, chief executive, and this new culture on the board to move away from the deficit budget side, people will see that the Fort Worth ISD is indeed running on a balanced budget. You’re going to start noticing things,” said Phillips.
In the case of candidate Valeria Nevarez, the deficit could have been avoided if the school board and administrators had focused on financial responsibilities and had the right priorities.
Projects such as a new administration building and other planned renovations are no longer needed due to declining enrollment. These funds would be better used to cover the deficit, she said.
Planned school renovations will be financed through a $1.2 billion voter-approved bond beginning in 2021. The bond must be used for a specific purpose, such as building a school, renovating it, or buying a new bus.
Nevarez said people make money from bonds, but that doesn’t work for her.
“I boldly say that many people have used public education to make money,” she said.
All decisions within the budget must return to academic excellence, said District 5 candidate Kevin Lynch.
Every dollar spent must go to education, he said. If not, the trustee should question why, he said.
Nor can taxpayers expect to pay more in school district revenues as enrollment declines, Lynch said.
“Probably the last four years we’ve kicked the can and worked our way up, but we haven’t made the tough decisions that need to be made. Those are the things that have to happen.
To build a better balanced budget, candidate Josh Yoder wants the entire process to be more transparent to build trust with voters.
According to Yoder, it all starts with a forensic audit of the budget to determine overspending.
The Board of Trustees has made far too many decisions without discussion about expensive items, such as the purchase of a school district’s health curriculum.
“I truly believe that if we can reallocate the financial resources provided by the property tax, we can make a difference in the lives of all the children of ISD in Fort Worth through our education and trade programs.
First-term incumbent CJ Evans has requested a zero-based budget since being elected, she said. As budgets shift to that approach, Evans hopes to minimize deficit spending.
It’s important to see what you need to cut, but it’s also important to consider what you need to add. For example, the district’s freshman success coach, she said her program has been successful and needs to be expanded to more students.
Evans also makes his priorities known to managers and other trustees.
“I really try to be transparent, so everyone knows where I come from,” she said.
If voters choose to represent each of the three districts, they must do so. June 30th is the deadline for the Board to adopt the next budget.
Fort Worth Report journalist Kristen Burton contributed to this report.
Jacob Sanchez is an Enterprise Journalist at Fort Worth Report. firstname.lastname@example.org or twitterThe Fort Worth Report makes news decisions independently of its board members and financial backers.Read more about our editorial independence policy here.