As Marfa Education Foundation celebrates 10 years, MISD reflects on the nonprofit’s impact on Marfa schools

MARFA — The Marfa Education Foundation, a nonprofit with the purpose of supporting Marfa Independent School District by funding projects that improve core curriculum education and supplement enrichment programs, is turning 10 this year. With a decade under their belt, the foundation has funded countless projects for Marfa students, all while supplementing a school district budget that has increasingly had to send tax dollars back to the state coffers and away from local students.

Every year, the MEF board meets with MISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero to hash through the latest challenges the school is facing and find the best ways the foundation can financially enhance the school’s efforts.

For the 2021 to 2022 school year, the MEF and Aguero quickly identified a need to focus on combating the learning loss that came about during the pandemic. Since March 2020, students have been forced into learning from home or in new and unprecedented conditions in the classroom, due to the relentless waves of COVID-19.

Aguero had already redirected some resources away from the school’s Montessori program and into math, where student scores had been lagging, so MEF’s decision to focus on literacy and mathematics aligned with the school’s existing efforts.

The help from MEF has been “amazing,” said Superintendent Aguero. “When I got here, I think their budget for us was somewhere around $30,000.” Since then, the support has only grown, with this year’s budget reaching an unprecedented $254,000. “It’s incredible to be able to sit down at the table and say we can do so much more,” said MEF Board President Jenny Moore of this year’s budget, which has been nearly doubled because of a $120,000 anonymous gift for this school year.

That growth in support has come at a good time for the school, who over the past few years has experienced state policies that force the district to send a growing amount of its tax revenue out of the district and into the state’s pockets. It’s part of a “Robinhood” policy, where districts classified as wealthy must return some of their tax dollars to support poorer districts.

In Marfa, an explosion in housing values has contributed to the district’s classification as wealthy, even though the income levels among student households is low enough for the entire district to qualify for free lunch.

Under the state policies, the school has sent an increasing amount of money back to the state. “Initially we paid $25,000, then $110,000, last year it was $330,000, and now it’s looking to be about $520,000,” Aguero said.

Moore said the school’s complicated financial situation has had a “really significant” impact on the district’s budget, making MEF’s supplemental funding for academic and support programs all the more crucial over the years. “It’s become increasingly important to support these core things because the school has been in a difficult financial position,” said Moore.

The foundation has provided funding for dual credit college classes, materials like Chromebook laptops for students to use during the pandemic and graphing calculators, support for the READ MARFA program and funding of around $30,000 in the past four years for new library books, Aguero said.

Librarian Crawford Marginot said the MEF money has been crucial in updating the library’s books and shelving, which creates a more welcoming environment for students to spend time in. “We certainly wouldn’t have as many books to replace the ones from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s that were languishing in the library. We’ve been able to replace those and update all the sections of the library, which we wouldn’t have been able to do if we didn’t have the extra money,” she said.

The foundation also has $1,000 grants available to teachers, who can bring forward a project or material need and get support from the board. “In my full time here, seven years, I’ve never had them say no to a teacher project. That’s an amazing thing,” Aguero said.

In addition to combatting the educational consequences from the pandemic, the MEF chose to support new, non-core programs to stimulate students by adding new activities and classes in the school district.

These MEF-supported programs include Marfa Live Arts’ monologues and playwriting in the junior high and high school, the robotics team, cheerleading camp and a music program (including newly offered guitar classes) after budget cuts had slashed away the school’s band a couple years back.

“I don’t think we’d be able to provide some of the extra activities that we do, that brings in different thinking, different support for the students to learn, other than just true academics,” Aguero said. “It wouldn’t be as interesting or as in depth of learning about all the things they can do with what they learn in the classroom.”

The MEF’s other priorities include preparing students for post-graduation life, hiring and retaining quality teachers and training teachers and principals with professional development.

The foundation last year also began giving financial support to the school’s teaching staff, and will continue that project. “This year we can give an even bigger discretionary gift to say, we see you, we see what your struggles are,” Moore said. “It goes without saying, but we wouldn’t be able to support the students unless the teachers themselves are supported. It’s such a good opportunity to not only support programming, but get direct support to the teachers themselves.”

The foundation relies on donations, and lately they’ve gotten support from anonymous donors, generous Marfa community members, the Stillwater Foundation, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the Donald and Carole Chaiken Foundation, the Tocker Foundation, the Permian Basin Area Foundation, the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, the Wayne and JoAnn Moore Foundation, the Abell-Hanger Foundation, and recently, Dickie’s clothing company, which supported MEF after being a part of an art exhibition at Maintenant in Marfa.

Considering what the district would be like without MEF’s continuous support, Aguero said, “A long time ago, MISD was running deficit budgets and saying, ‘We can’t afford that, we don’t have money.’ MEF has allowed us to get away from that and have a system in place to do those activities and programs that we know are good.”