Get ready for ‘the bloodletting.’ School districts are in for a rocky budget season.

Two years ago, finding themselves flush with federal cash, school districts across the country built out summer school programs, added after-school learning time and hired armies of tutors to work with students who lost ground academically during the pandemic.

Now, facing the end of the federal COVID relief program, district leaders have to decide how many of the programs they started and the people they hired they can afford to keep. Many districts, including some in Tarrant County, have already begun cutting staff. Education finance experts say they expect those cuts to get deeper as school boards get further into their budget-making processes.

“This will still be one of the largest ever one-time financial impacts to public education, at least that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

Federal ESSER money set to expire in September

Federal education officials sent billions to school districts and states as a part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, or ESSER. The money was intended to help school districts cope with the effects of the pandemic, including closing skills and knowledge gaps left by the shift to online learning. Across the country, districts used that money to pay for programs like intensive tutoring, expanded school days and beefed-up summer learning offerings. Many districts also used that money to upgrade HVAC systems in aging school buildings.

The program gave districts broad latitude for how to spend the money, and a hard deadline for doing so. The last round of funding expires in September. Districts must send back any money they haven’t spent by that point.

As that deadline approaches, districts are looking at the cuts they’ll have to make once that money is gone. Last month, officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District announced the district would need to cut 133 jobs, all but four of which are federally funded. Those cuts fell most heavily on the district’s technology division, but assessment data analysts, freshman success coaches and Leadership Academy Network instructional specialists also lost jobs.

District officials and board members said those cuts were necessary in part because of the end of federal relief money. They also pointed to legislative inaction on school funding as another factor behind the layoffs.

“It is crucial to remember that more than 80% of our budget is allocated to salaries,” Superintendent Angélica Ramsey said in an announcement about the cuts. “We are fundamentally a people-centered organization, and when we must address fiscal matters, it unfortunately affects our valued employees.”

Fort Worth ISD used much of its allotment — roughly $261.64 million — on a number of programs intended to give students extra learning time, including expanded summer learning and Saturday Learning Quest, an enrichment program that brings kids to school on certain weekends for fun activities like art, music and STEM, as well as extra instructional time in reading and math.

Like other districts across Texas, Fort Worth ISD also used a portion of its federal money on intensive tutoring for students who didn’t perform well on the state test. State lawmakers passed a requirement in 2021 that districts offer small-group tutoring for any student who failed a section of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR.

Charlie Garcia, assistant superintendent for leading and learning in Fort Worth ISD, said district officials are looking at student performance data to determine which programs had the biggest academic impact. As it moves forward with its budget process, the district will prioritize the programs that had the biggest impact academically, and also the biggest benefit to the community, he said.

Garcia said the fact that state lawmakers didn’t come through with increased funding for school districts compounds the problem. Texas lawmakers had billions in budget surpluses to spend last year, but proposals to boost school districts’ per-pupil allotments became entangled in a fight over school vouchers. Ultimately, none of the surplus money went to school districts.

Although the district doesn’t yet have a finalized list of which programs it will be able to keep and which it will have to phase out, Fort Worth ISD officials began scaling back some of those programs as early as last year. District officials scaled back Saturday Learning Quest, offering it at just five elementary schools instead of 24, for the summer of 2023. They also began offering the program, which had previously been open to every elementary student in the district, only to those from the 15 highest-need elementary campuses.

HEB ISD faces program cuts as federal money winds down

The Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District will have to cut from three main areas, said district spokesperson Deanne Hullender: academic interventionists, Communities in School staffers and Language Proficiency Assessment Committee specialists. The district has offered all affected staff members other jobs in HEB ISD, she said.

Academic interventionists work one-on-one with students who have challenges at school, including those who are learning English and those with learning differences like dyslexia or dyscalculia. Hullender said those staffers have been a key part of the district’s strategy for closing learning gaps left by the pandemic, but the district can’t afford to keep all of them once federal relief money is gone. Beginning next year, the district will no longer have full-time interventionists and it will reduce hours for its part-time interventionists, she said.

Language Proficiency Assessment Committee specialists work with students who are learning English and their teachers, Hullender said. Among other things, those specialists handle state-mandated documentation, which allows teachers more time to give those students the one-on-one attention they need, she said. The district will have to cut half of those positions in the coming school year, she said.

Following the pandemic, HEB ISD partnered with the nonprofit Communities in Schools to place 13 staffers on campuses to help address students’ social and emotional needs. Teachers, researchers and school leaders have expressed concern since the beginning of the pandemic about a sharp uptick in mental health issues among students. Those staffers also played a role in helping the district improve its attendance numbers, Hullender said. But once federal money ends, the district will have to reduce the number of campuses that have Communities in Schools staffers, she said.

All of those are critical positions that helped students in the district make up ground they lost in the pandemic, Hullender said. District leaders are “absolutely” concerned that students could lose some of that progress once those supports are gone, she said.

GCISD, Northwest ISD escape without cuts

Not every district will have to make cuts once the federal money is gone. Nicole Lyons, a spokesperson for the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District, said leaders there don’t expect to have to make any program changes once that money ends. The district has spent the last two years coordinating with other sources of funding to plan for the end of the federal relief program, she said.

Jonathan Pastusek, chief financial officer for the Northwest Independent School District, said the district expects to be able to absorb the loss of federal money without having to make cuts. Northwest ISD is one of the fastest-growing districts in Texas, meaning the revenue it gets from the state grows substantially each year. The district expects that revenue growth to be enough to supplant the federal money, he said.

Among other things, the district used federal money to add English and math teachers at the high school level, allowing for smaller class sizes, Pastusek said. Having smaller classes allowed those teachers to give more attention to students who had gotten off track during the pandemic, he said. As the district grows, it needs more and more teachers, he said, so district leaders have had no trouble keeping those new hires on the payroll.

The district also used that money to expand its summer school offerings and hire other staff like interventionist specialists, instructional coaches and counselors, Pastusek said. Once the money ends, the district expects to be able to pay for those positions out of its general fund, he said.

Although the end of federal money hasn’t created a crisis for Northwest ISD, it was still a key piece of the district’s recovery from the academic effects of the pandemic, Pastusek said.

“It was critical,” he said. “And of course, it would be great if we still had it, but it was a big benefit for us.”

End of ESSER hits poor districts hardest

Roza, the Georgetown Edunomics Lab director, said districts across the country are in for an unstable year once federal money is gone. During training sessions with school leaders and briefings with the press, Roza routinely describes the 2024-25 school year as “the bloodletting.”

But the effects won’t fall on all school districts equally, Roza said. Low-income districts across the country will be hit hardest, she said, because they got bigger allotments from the federal spending program than more affluent districts did. Poorer districts also don’t have as much of an ability to absorb those losses.

Compounding those problems is the fact that many big urban districts have seen their enrollments decline since the pandemic, she said. In a paper published last October, researchers at the Brookings Institution noted a sharp uptick in the number of students who have left traditional school districts for private schools, homeschooling or some other non-public option since 2019. Fort Worth ISD has seen its enrollment shrink by 17% since 2016. Because states fund school districts on a per-pupil basis, declining enrollment means lost revenue.

The end of federal relief money leaves district administrators and school boards with a difficult budget-making season, Roza said. Districts will have to cut popular programs like tutoring, summer school and after-school enrichment, she said. Some, especially those with the biggest enrollment declines, may even have to close campuses, she said.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that most school boards across the country have never had to deal with deep budget cuts, Roza said. Even before the infusion of federal money, most districts had seen at least a decade of solid revenue growth, she said.

Although those decisions will always be difficult, Roza said the best way for districts to approach them is to figure out which of their programs are most effective and find a way to keep them after federal money ends. But she said that isn’t what all districts are doing. In many cases, she’s seen district leaders prioritize avoiding layoffs rather than preserving effective programs. Rather than cutting staff, those districts have cut unfilled positions and ended contracts with external vendors for things like after-school programs and tutoring, she said.

Although it’s understandable to want to shield employees from job cuts, Roza said that approach isn’t focused on what students need. Cutting vendors and deciding not to fill open jobs might invite less pushback from teachers, staff and the broader community, she said. But if district leaders don’t make those decisions more thoughtfully, they could end up needlessly cutting programs that are working for students, she said.

But Roza said school district leaders need to make sure any pushback those decisions generate doesn’t derail their focus on academic recovery. When teachers and support staff are protesting against job cuts and parents are rallying against school closures, it can be easy for district leaders to get distracted, she said. She worries that closing learning gaps left by the pandemic will slip down district leaders’ lists of priorities as they’re faced with crises stemming from the end of federal money.

“I think we’re going to have a very disruptive year with a lot of angry parents and a lot of angry staff,” Roza said.