Here’s why Pflugerville ISD might close schools — and how the community is fighting back

Superintendent Douglas Killian said the district does not want to close schools, but it’s running out of options in the face of declining enrollment, limited state funding and competition from charter schools. Parents are pushing back.

By Becky Fogel, KUTJanuary 19, 2023 10:00 am,

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From KUT:

Anthony, a fifth grader at Parmer Lane Elementary, stood at the front of his school’s cafeteria on Tuesday night, microphone in hand. He told a packed house why the school, which he’s attended since the third grade, is special to him.

“All the other schools I’ve been through in Dallas, Irving, Addison and also Houston, I have not been able to fit in,” he said. “And I feel like at this school, I have been able to fit in very well with my friends.”

Parmer Lane is one of six elementary campuses the Pflugerville Independent School District is considering closing to save money because it is facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. PfISD officials largely blame the shortfall on the state’s school finance system, which they argue underfunds public schools throughout Texas.

Anthony was one of many people who urged district officials not to shutter schools and find other solutions during a recent community meeting.

PfISD held 10 community meetings over the last two weeks on 10 proposals the district has come up with to cut costs. Administrators presented the options to the school board for the first time in mid-December.

Seven of the proposals would close two to three elementary schools located west of State Highway 130. The affected elementary schools are Dessau, Parmer Lane, River Oaks, Spring Hill, Brookhollow and Pflugerville. All of the campuses are Title 1 schools, which means they have a high concentration of economically disadvantaged students. The district has said it will repurpose any campuses that are closed. Administrators have said that could mean turning them into child care centers or offices for staff.

One proposal does not require any school closures but seeks to address capacity issues at schools east of SH 130 by rezoning students at eight elementary campuses.

Two of the proposals call for major changes to high school attendance boundaries.

The school board is scheduled to get an update on the proposals Thursday night. Board members will also hear community feedback on the plans gathered through the public meetings and online. They are slated to make a decision in February.

Why is PfISD considering closing schools? 

Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Douglas Killian said the district is looking at closing schools because it’s facing a $12 million to $14 million budget deficit. The deficit stems from a number of challenges, some of which are unique to PfISD while others are statewide issues.

One local problem Pflugerville ISD is confronting is declining enrollment. Located just outside of Austin, PfISD used to be a fast-growing district, which made it eligible for additional funding from the Texas Education Agency. PfISD no longer qualifies. In each of the last three school years, the number of students leaving the district was higher than the number of students enrolling.

“The pressure of charter schools moving into the area has caught us,” Killian said. “Plus, we lost some kids over the pandemic to the tune of about 800 to 900 students. So, that meant that we’ve effectively gone this year back to the [2018-2019] school year in terms of enrollment.”

Even though enrollment is flat, schools east of SH 130 are growing while those west of the toll road are not.

“You would think we would just transport kids from these other areas to the open schools that have more space. The problem is they’re very far away from where the growth is,” he said. “And, as a number of districts around us have seen and in the state, there’s a shortage of bus drivers.”

Pflugerville ISD has also joined the ranks of property-wealthy school districts, like Austin ISD, that must pay into the state’s recapture system. The state distributes the funds to districts that can’t raise as much money from property taxes. Killian said PfISD’s recapture payment is about the same amount as its budget deficit.

“We’re also sending the state $12 to $14 million in a recapture payment,” he said. “Isn’t that interesting?”

In addition to local challenges, Killian said Pflugerville ISD is contending with a couple of issues that all Texas school districts are facing. One is the fact that the state’s per student funding has been stagnant for four years. Per student funding, also known as the basic allotment, is the base amount of state funding schools receive for each of their students. Lawmakers raised the basic allotment in 2019 as part of a major school finance bill. The GOP-controlled legislature increased the basic allotment from $5,140 to $6,160.

“It was a good starting point for us, but what’s happened since then is that inflation has just eaten away at what we can do,” he said.

Killian said another factor affecting all school districts is that student attendance has dropped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is a significant issue in Texas because it is one of only six states in the U.S. that funds schools based on how often kids show up to class.

“Our attendance rates haven’t recovered, so we’re losing quite a bit of state money from kids not attending,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t want to have kids attend school when they’re feeling sick, so it’s kind of a Catch-22 for us and we’re losing state aid.”

Democratic lawmakers from Austin are backing bills during the current legislative session that would address both of these issues and increase state funding for public schools. The state also has a nearly $33 billion budget surplus that some lawmakers and advocates hope will be used to support education.

State Rep. Donna Howard has filed legislation that seeks to adjust the basic allotment each year to reflect inflation. State Rep. Gina Hinojosa has authored a bill that would fund Texas public schools based on enrollment rather than attendance. Her bill also has a Republican co-sponsor: state Rep. Hugh Shine from Temple.

But the PfISD school board is expected to make a decision about whether to close elementary schools in February — months before the 88th Texas Legislative session ends in late May. Killian said the district not only needs to cut costs to address the budget deficit but also to be able to offer teachers raises. Each 1% salary increase costs the district about $2 million.

Killian said closing a campus and finding a new use for it would save the district an estimated $2.5 million in staffing costs. But he said people will not lose their jobs. Instead, staff will be moved to fill vacancies at other campuses.

Even still, Killian said, closing schools will not solve all of the district’s financial problems and it may create new ones such as higher transportation costs.

“The school closures … actually they’re not the only thing that we’re going to have to work to address,” he said.

Killian said he knows that if the district closes schools it will be painful. He has been through this process before. When Killian was the superintendent of Hutto ISD in 2011, the Texas Legislature cut about $5 billion in state funding for public education. The school board ended up closing his own kid’s school.

“I know our parents are upset about the fact that we are potentially closing some schools, but I need them to know that we’re not doing it without a heavy heart,” he said.

How are teachers reacting?

Tricia Moore has been a music teacher at Parmer Lane Elementary for 13 years.

“I replaced somebody that was here for 22 years, and she said I was going to be here that long,” Moore said.

One of the things that Moore said has kept her at the school for so long is that it’s like a family. She said people are willing to lend a helping hand both at work and outside of work. She has also gotten to know her students and their families over the years.

“And they’ve kept in touch with me,” she said. “It just means so much to me to be able to hear how they’re doing and just get to be in their families, in their lives for such a long time.”

When Moore found out Parmer Lane could be closed, she said it was “devastating.” She said the news was especially hard after getting through the challenges of teaching during the pandemic.

“We finally are getting to something that’s normal and then it’s like we’re crushed again,” she said. “And I’m running out of energy.”

Two of the 10 proposals call for Parmer Lane to be closed. If the school board ultimately decides to close the school, Moore said she will likely leave the district. The only thing that would give her pause would be if her principal asked her to go to another school.

“That would maybe get me to stay. Other than that — no, I’ll quit,” she said. “I’m not committed to this district. I’ve been committed to this school. I’m committed to people who support me, and support my program and support my children.”

Other teachers at Parmer Lane also describe it as a special place. Elena Bessire teaches dual language kindergarten in English and Spanish and has been working there for eight years. She said at a time when there is so much turnover in education, the teachers at Parmer Lane stick around.

“I know that teaching is a tough field to be in, and it can be really hard and challenging. Here at Parmer Lane, it has been so supportive,” she said.

Bessire said she understands that Pflugerville ISD is facing a budget crisis and also needs to take steps to alleviate overcrowding in other schools. Still, she was surprised to see Parmer Lane on the chopping block.

“We’ve cultivated something really successful here at Parmer Lane, and we don’t want it to just get lost or destroyed or have to be rebuilt in another way,” she said.

Bessire is hopeful the proposal that does not close any schools is the one that moves forward. She said it could address overcrowding concerns and also give the district more time to figure out how to reduce costs. It could also give schools the chance to promote their programs in an effort to enroll more students.

It makes sense to buy us more time to really put the good word out there of the things we do,” she said. “And that way the community knows.”

How are families and kids reacting? 

Frannie Sanchez felt a mixture of shock and resignation when Pflugerville ISD announced the possible school closures in December, right before the start of winter break. She has two kids at River Oaks Elementary, a campus that would be closed under three of the 10 plans the school board is considering.

“It’s been the center of our community. It’s been kind of our home, our safe space for pretty much my kids’ entire lives,” she said.

Sanchez attended the public meeting that PfISD administrators held at River Oaks. She said it was frustrating that district officials declined to answer families’ questions, but parents and students gave impassioned remarks.

“Seeing what our community can do under these really difficult circumstances, I felt spoke to the kind of community we are, the kind of power that we have and the connection that we have to each other,” she said.

Students at Parmer Lane Elementary drew pictures showing their support for keeping their school open. The drawings were on display in the cafeteria during a recent public meeting about school closures.
Becky Fogel / KUT

Parents at Dessau Elementary, where one of the first public meetings was held, raised a variety of concerns to PfISD officials. They said school closures could disrupt access to special education services as well as bilingual education. Some parents also worried that not all families were aware that the district was contemplating major changes to attendance boundaries.

Families at Parmer Lane Elementary shared similar concerns about the impact of closing the campus. Brianna, a 17-year-old high school senior, went to Parmer Lane from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. When she found out the school might be closed, she sprang into action.

“I had to talk to my old teachers and be like, ‘We have to come together and speak up and use our voices and advocate for our school and our community,’” she said.

Brianna said the school helped mold her into the person she is today and she hopes PfISD and the school board listen to the community, especially because the school’s students are high-achieving.

“It makes success stories,” she said. “I’m going to UT this fall under a full-ride and to be able to say that I came from this school — it’s a success story.”

Gabby, who is now in seventh grade, started attending Parmer Lane in third grade. Before that she went to a charter school, and she said as soon as she switched to Parmer Lane things were better for her.

“I made new friends even though I was a new kid, and the teaching was really good and the teachers were nice,” she said.

Gabby’s younger sister, Gracie, is in second grade at Parmer Lane. She also likes going to school there.

“It’s really fun because we get to do activities and meet other people,” she said. “And the teachers are not that strict here.”

When Gracie started kindergarten at Parmer Lane during the pandemic, school was completely online. Some parents raised concerns that after all the upheaval kids have been through over the last three years, closing schools — another major disruption — would be overwhelming.

Other parents pointed out the proposed closures disproportionately affect Title 1 schools and schools with a majority of Hispanic and Black students. They also said Parmer Lane has consistently earned high ratings from the Texas Education Agency and should be a model for other schools.

What are the next steps?

The Pflugerville ISD school board is slated to make a decision in February, less than three months after the 10 cost-saving proposals were shared publicly. Families and teachers have said they are worried that the process for determining whether to close schools is moving too quickly. But Superintendent Killian pushed back on that concern. He said there have been signs of trouble for the last couple of years.

“We’ve been cutting all along. We’ve been cutting administration,” he said. “We may not have made the news because those kinds of things don’t tend to make the news, even though we’ve been talking about it for over two years now, that we’ve had these struggles.”

Killian said right now the community is seeing how “the sausage is made” because 10 different proposals are on the table and the school board has not yet decided on any of them. He and other district administrators have also asked the community to share ideas on how to save money and generate revenue without closing schools.

“We’re just listening at this point to comments, but we’re hearing a lot of emotion but not a lot of ideas for alternatives,” he said. “And we really need alternative revenue ideas. We need alternative cut ideas — all of those kinds of things.”

Before Thursday’s school board meeting, families plan to rally against the proposed school closures by holding a “Save Our Schools” demonstration at the PfISD Administration building at 1401 W. Pecan St., Pflugerville.

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