Marfa ISD School Board weighs district needs with budget limitations, seeks new trustee 

Illustration by Crowcrumbs

MARFA — At a Marfa Independent School District board meeting last week, trustees undertook a preliminary review of the 2023-2024 school year budget. 

The chief financial officer for the district, Rosela Rivera, had been actively meeting with district leaders to formulate the upcoming budget and imparted one common theme across departments to the gathered school board members: “These budget meetings — it was a lot of needs, needs, wants, wants, wants, and I’m like, all we need is money,” she said.

Over the course of the meeting, board members discussed upkeep of the district’s aging campus, upgraded security measures and new transit, but found themselves up against the familiar dilemma of limited funds, exacerbated by state policies and dwindling emergency relief.

Facilities updates were highlighted as the district’s big ticket items this coming budget cycle. The district attempted to pass a $57 million school bond for a new K-12 campus this past fall, with trustees and school leaders arguing facilities were outdated and failed to provide an adequate environment for contemporary learning — ultimately, however, the measure failed to sway voters, a fact lamented by one board member during discussions.

“If only the bond would have passed,” said Board President Teresa Nuñez.

For now, the district cafeteria needed to be prioritized for several projects, said Rivera, chief among them a new HVAC unit and new flooring. The district offers the cafeteria as a rental venue for the local community, one of the few truly affordable options in town, said Board Member Lori Flores — but with a subpar facility that lacked HVAC, it wasn’t seeing any bookings in the heat of the summer. The district may need to tap into its $300,000 facilities fund balance, a reserve account, for the necessary upgrades, said Rivera. 

Things weren’t much better over at the elementary school campus, said Principal Amy White. Heating and cooling systems were continuously failing to perform, she said. The problematic boiler had a “mind of its own,” not shutting off once it got going in the winter, she said, and classroom windows only barely cracked open. Junior High and High School Principal Luane Porter even said the district nurse has experienced “kids going to her that are sick because of the temperature.” 

The district would also soon need to financially tackle leaks to the science wing roof and  damage to a teacher housing roof as a result of extreme wind. 

Safety and security upgrades were also a major theme of preliminary budget talks. The district recently received $200,000 in grant funds from the state to spend on school security and is exploring installing a card entry system for doors. District leaders who met with company Calian IT & Cyber Solutions out of El Paso recently said the technological upgrade would allow them to quickly lock down campuses, customize security and would alert them if doors were left open. 

The key card access system would work in conjunction with their current security camera system, but would be costly — coming in at over $200,000 — when considering the wiring and addition of electrical cables to doors, said Rivera. Security camera monitors for the new school resource officer were also on the wishlist.

Regarding budget priorities for the athletics department, trustees, Rivera and Athletic Director Linda Ojeda discussed potential adjustments for coaching stipends — whether to up the one-sport stipend from $1,000 to $1,500 or explore further breakdowns by sport and grade level, similar to other districts. 

Making additions to the district’s new track, including a timing system, in order to get it up to snuff as a hosting venue for visiting districts was also discussed, and roughly budgeted to cost around $60,000. 

A new bus — another big ticket item — was also going to be needed very soon, said Rivera. 

Nuts and bolts aside, board members also considered an initiative in response to current teen trends — $10,000 to install bathroom sensors that would alert administrators to vaping activity. 

They would also like to construct a therapeutic sensory room for special education students at the elementary school, a project that would cost around $15,000 to $20,000, likely to be funded in phases.

The meeting acted as the initial review of the overall budget, with an emphasis on general comments and requests from trustees, said Superintendent Oscar Aguero — much of it amounted to a wishlist from faculty. It remains to be seen, in the remaining budgeting process, what can actually be funded. 

Marfa ISD isn’t alone in its ongoing struggles for adequate funding. School leaders around the state are declaring “Mayday,” urging citizens to advocate that lawmakers allocate more of the $32.7 billion budget surplus to public schools, which they say are $7 billion under funded

With the current legislative session concluding at the end of the month, the district was following a number of bills related to school district funding, explained Aguero, including SB3 which would allow for $30,000 increases to current homestead exemptions for over 5 million Texans — money not able to be taxed by school districts. 

As it stands, Marfa ISD is already getting the short end of the stick regarding how property values contribute to its state-mandated funding formula. Marfa’s high property values mean Marfa ISD is considered a wealthy district, meaning a portion of its annual budget gets taken and redistributed to areas with less wealth, a policy referred to as recapture or “Robin Hood.” 

Last year, Marfa ISD’s recapture payment amounted to around $1 million out of its $4.8 million budget, this year, with the Presidio County Appraisal District’s preliminary valuations coming in at over $623 million for properties in Marfa ISD’s jurisdiction, the district was projected to pay $1.7 million in recapture next year. Those numbers are preliminary and are likely to change, explained Rivera. 

Emergency COVID relief funds from the Texas Legislature, referred to as ESSER funds, will also run out this coming year. In 2020, the district received over $1 million in ESSER III grants, which are restrictive and can only be used for certain purposes, to be spent by fall 2024. The district had already received and spent nearly $500,000 in a previous round of funding through the program.

In Marfa ISD’s case, ESSER monies help fund counselor, custodian, interventionists and district nurse salaries, retention stipends, student tutorials, technology and more. Without the COVID relief funds, the district will need to find a funding source for those essential positions and services.

Solicitation of new board member

In other news, trustees decided to put out a call for letters of interest from citizens willing to serve on the school board. The open position is for Place 1 on the board, a seat which has been vacant since the resignation of Christa Marquez last July. A previous open call for letters of interest this past January did not result in any applicants. 

Letters of interest may be emailed to the superintendent’s secretary, Griselda Hinojos, via email at [email protected] or dropped off at the district administration office, located up the stairs next to the Martin Field Lincoln Street entrance. The deadline to apply is Monday, May 15. School board members will review letters the evening of May 15 at their regular meeting. School board members meet regularly once a month and additionally for training. They serve three year terms. 

If the board opts to appoint someone to the Place 1 position, they will serve a one-year term then be required to run in the General Election next May. 

Summer break to start earlier than planned 

Junior High and High School Principal Luane Porter addressed the board to discuss shortening the school year to end on May 19, as opposed to the original date, roughly a week later on May 25. She explained that the district would still meet its state requirements of 75,600 minutes of instruction per calendar year. 

The district’s original calendar included a total of 18 extra days, and even with the extensions of the Christmas and Easter holidays and lack of school cancellations due to extreme weather events, the district still had around 13 extra days, she said. 

All of the end of year events will take place as planned, said Porter, including graduation on May 26, and teachers would still work the last week. The decision was approved by the board.