Houston ISD says school closures could be coming, does not provide timeline

School closures could be on the horizon for Houston ISD as the district struggles with declining enrollment and faces a looming fiscal cliff of $217 million, officials said at a Thursday night board meeting. 

While no specifics were provided of which or when schools might close, it was listed as a way to mitigate the district’s budget woes. The move was largely decried by parents, advocates and some trustees who expressed concerns that smaller schools, particularly those in Black and brown neighborhoods, would be disproportionately affected. 
HISD enrollment has decreased by 12 percent in the past five years, while the number of schools has decreased by 4.5 percent. On average, each HISD campus has 58 fewer students, a decrease of 8 percent, according to HISD data. 

“Over time, we’re spending more money on fixed costs, like building and utilities, than individual students,” Superintendent Millard House II said. “The stat that always sticks out to me is that the last time we were at this particular enrollment where we are right now was 1984.” 

Budget deficits in fiscal years 2023 and 2024 will be partially offset by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief,  federal funds doled out to support schools during the pandemic. The Covid relief money will lower projected deficits to $31 and $97 million in 2023 and 2024, respectively.  However, when those funds will be exhausted in 2025, when HISD’s deficit is projected to reach $217 million.

“Without change in our cost structures, this deficit will repeat each year, as enrollment continues to decline,” House said, “which our projections show will be the case for the next five to 10 years.”

The financial troubles are compounded by the declining enrollment and increasing number of campuses qualifying for the district’s small school subsidies, which were designed to help schools with low enrollment. HISD currently spends about $36 million on those, he said. However, critics say that small school subsidies were only a sliver of the deficit and ESSER funds were never meant to be long term or supplant regular funding. 

“Your plan targets small school subsidies to cut the deficit. This is only (16) percent…is this yet another attempt to close schools in poor neighborhoods where parents don’t have a voice?” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of Community Voices for Education, a Houston-based advocacy group that focuses on education.

House said the district needs to undergo a financial “transformation,” which will include more than just school closures. Dani Hernandez, who represents District III, asked what other measures will be taken, besides school closures, to address the district’s financial problems.  

“That is a part of what we’re figuring out right now,” House responded. 

In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, roughly 20-some schools closed, predominantly in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Parents and education advocates fear a familiar pattern may repeat itself as Houston ISD goes forward with its “financial transformation.” 

About a decade ago, Travis McGee Sr., a Sunnyside resident and activist, said his children had to switch schools three times because they kept closing. Their last stop was Dodson Elementary in Third Ward, which closed in 2014, when McGee decided to take them to school outside of their zoned area, which was at best a 30 minute drive. 

“You can’t risk putting them on a bus,” McGree said, “because the bus may or may not show up.”

When the closures happened, McGee spoke out about it at board meetings, but he notes that this might not be an option for a lot of parents. It’s difficult for many working class parents to make the trek through Houston traffic to speak for one minute at a public meeting.

He ultimately ended up sending his children to a school outside of Sunnyside, but where he knows closures aren’t a threat. 

“Now, my kids attend Lamar high school because they never would close that school,” McGee said. “And if they did I would have a lot of people to help me stop it from happening.”

Lashalyn Brown, a mother of a 3-year-old, grew up in Sunny Side and recalls her elementary school was not “kept up” compared to others. She…

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