Comal Independent School District has a bone to pick with state legislators, who haven’t released COVID-19 funds approved over a month ago.
Three federal stimulus packages passed during the pandemic included more than $19 billion for Texas public schools, but state leaders have yet to distribute most of the money. Local districts say they need it to cover pandemic-related costs.
A recent non-profit study said Comal ISD is awaiting $23.2 million and New Braunfels ISD $14.7 million in the two remaining rounds of federal COVID-19 stimulus money now awaiting a decision by legislative education committees.
"The Texas Legislature is holding back the money that's supposed to go to school districts — and that’s not right,” Comal ISD Board President David Drastata said Monday.
A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune that state leaders are waiting for more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education before opening the spigot and letting billions flow down to school districts.
Because of federal requirements, Texas invested more than $1 billion in higher education to receive the third round of stimulus funding for K-12 public schools. Experts said the state has applied for a waiver to avoid sending that added money to higher education, but the process has caused major delays in local districts receiving funds they desperately need.
Because of that waiver request, Texas lawmakers likely will not decide how to parcel out the money until they either hear back from Washington D.C. or until the Legislature finalizes its plans for the state budget. But the waiver only applies to the latest stimulus package, so the state could unlock $5.5 billion for education from the second relief bill at any time.
Libby Cohen, director of advocacy and outreach for nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas — which compiled the funding estimates — said dozens of states are already sending federal dollars to public schools. Laura Yeager, a founder of Just Fund It TX, said it left Texas and New York as the only two states that provided no additional funding to public schools during the pandemic.
“We find it baffling that Texas is pumping the brakes on this particular issue to the extent that it is,” Cohen said. “The dollars are there … and districts need to know if and when they’re coming because they’re writing their budgets right now, and they’re making decisions about summer programming right now.”
“They are basically saying that schools have got enough money and that money should go to other areas (of the budget),” Drastata said. “If the money was intended to go to public schools and public education, it needs to go to public schools and public education.”
Comal ISD received $1.7 million and NBISD $1.1 million in CARES Act funds approved a year ago. On March 11 President Joe Biden signed the release of the third and most significant round of funding.
Drastata said Comal ISD has no idea of the totals being withheld.
“We have no idea because they have not released it,” he said of state and federal agencies. “This is something that doesn’t affect our school district but every school district across the state of Texas.”
Trustees are still stinging from a Texas Tribune story that quoted parents still angry about their decision to eliminate the district’s mask mandate March 9, hours before new state rules went into effect the following day.
While that March 25 meeting featured dozens of speakers for and against masks on campuses, there were no speakers during the workshop — which Drastata said brought additional criticisms.
“No one signed up for audience participation,” he said. “That’s not normal, as during workshops we don't usually see a lot of folks who show up to speak.”
“But I do want to emphasize and clarify we always have audience participation — it’s required by law,” he said. “We've had people accuse us of not having it on the agendas, but it’s always in the public record and is always there.
“During meetings what I typically do is make a comment stating that we do or do not have audience participation. If we don’t, it means that nobody signed up to talk and we move on to other business. Some have taken that out of context to mean that I'm not giving people the opportunity to speak.”
November bond election
Steve Stanford, the district’s executive communications director, said most of Thursday’s workshop focused on updating the district’s $397.7 million bond package canceled last May by COVID-19.
That package allotted $232.8 million for two new elementary schools, a middle school, capital improvements, land purchases and school buses. About $124.7 million was slated for an all-events center; $29.83 million for athletic improvements and another $10.4 million for instructional technology.
Trustees trimmed the final total from around $500 million in potential projects. Drastata said trustees have generally agreed to a November election. CFO David Andersen said last fall that a bond measure without a tax increase could total between $450 million and $460 million.
“Because of the delay in that election, we will actually have another $100 million in bonding capacity available,” Drastata said. “We could go as high as $500 million without a tax increase but we’re not going to do that.
“The package itself is going to be pretty much what we had put up in 2020. It will likely be over $400 million and definitely without tax increase.”
The Texas Tribune contributed to this report