What coronavirus means for graduation and beyond: This week at Marfa school board

MARFA — After weeks of virtual meetings as a precaution against the coronavirus crisis, the Marfa ISD school board has started meeting in-person again. But at a meeting on Monday night in the Shorthorn Gym, things hadn’t exactly returned to normal.

“We were spaced out about six feet in a giant U,” Superintendent Oscar Aguero said of the school board. “The few people in the audience were in the stands.”

Coronavirus loomed large over the meeting as the board grappled with what the pandemic would mean for graduation, the next school year and more. But the agenda was packed, and it wasn’t all coronavirus-related.

In his superintendent report, Aguero started off with good news. “In every area, we’ve actually brought in more income than we thought we would,” he said. The school district is below their budgeted expenditures on everything from school supplies to salaries — though Aguero predicted that salary expenditures will continue to rise, since the school still has three months of salaries to pay in this school-budget year.

During last year’s state legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed House Bill 3, a complex law that upended everything from property-tax collection and teacher pay to “recapture,” the process by which richer school districts help finance poorer ones.

With some of the policy details of HB3 still being worked out, school districts have been left uncertain about how to gauge future revenues. That’s been especially true at Marfa ISD, a historically “property-poor” district that now qualifies as a “property-wealthy” one as average home prices have risen over the years.

“We were trying to predict what we thought [our revenues] would be,” Aguero said — and since they were guesstimating, they settled on a “very conservative” budget.

“We put our revenues lower than we hoped,” he added. But school revenue turned out to be higher than administrators worried it might be, and the school ended up with reserves.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, Aguero said, “the only thing our graduates ever asked of me is they wanted to have an in-person graduation.” He and other school officials were determined to make that happen.

They set up multiple alternate days stretching all the way into August — but as Texas reopens and Presidio County still has no confirmed cases, they decided a May graduation is feasible after all. After getting approval from the Texas Education Agency, the plan is official: graduation will happen at 7 p.m. at Martin Field next Friday, May 29.

There will be some big changes, though. For one, each graduate is only allowed 10 guests. Everyone will get assigned seating, have a temperature screening and be asked a questionnaire about symptoms.

Some traditions — like the one of seniors handing out flowers to people who had a positive impact on them — are unfortunately off the table, Aguero said. But other traditions will be continuing, albeit with big changes.

One tradition that will survive is the senior circle. The school is buying a giant rope and will mark spots six feet apart where seniors can hold on. It might not be as intimate as a standard senior circle, but “that way, at least they’re still kind of together,” Aguero said.

Likely the biggest impacts from coronavirus aren’t coming during graduation, though. Instead, school officials are grappling with what next school year will look like — especially if the coronavirus crisis stretches into fall or even winter.

The TEA is recommending that schools keep “flexible” calendars, Aguero told the board. In other words, school districts should be prepared to cancel a week or two of school if necessary without throwing the school calendar into disarray.

Aguero outlined four ways he could see the 2020-2021 school year going. The first is the normal way, with kids returning in August. “That would be our dream,” he said.

Two other options involve “micro-closures” (being prepared to temporarily shut down the school) or a “staggered” calendar (where some kids show up for half-days in the morning and the rest in the afternoon). And then there’s what Aguero calls the “worst-case scenario”: under that model, kids don’t return to school until January.

The board on Monday also welcomed a new member: Christa Marquez, who will be replacing Lori Flores. Katie Price Fowlkes, the board president, was also re-sworn in.

In a statement, Marquez said she was “ready and excited” to join the board of Marfa ISD, which she said had some “amazing teachers, staff and students.”

“Everyone is always friendly and willing to help others,” she said. “I will have a child attending each campus this coming year, and I am honored to be a part of the Shorthorn family.”

Marfa’s city elections were postponed due to the coronavirus crisis and under other circumstances the school board might have done the same. But both Marquez and Fowlkes ran unchallenged, which allowed them to join or rejoin the board without delay.