Marfa ISD adopts deficit budget, extends COVID leave for teachers

Illustration by Crowcrumbs

MARFA — When the Marfa ISD Board of Trustees on Monday moved to adopt the proposed budget for the 2023-2024 school year with a deficit of over $1 million, it was with some reluctance. For a moment, when it came time to vote, board members sat in tense silence, some laughing nervously, as they waited for someone to propose the necessary motion. 

But expenses reflected in the proposed budget simply covered staff salaries and regular maintenance operations, according to Chief Financial Officer Rosela Rivera. Wish list items — a new bus, and even a much-needed HVAC system to combat extreme temperatures in parts of the campus — were excluded from the final tally. Board members agreed it was the best they could do.

“I mean, there’s no fluff — it’s not like there’s stuff in there that we don’t need,” said Board Member Yolanda Jurado. “That’s the bare bones.”

Ultimately, said Rivera, the district’s finances were felled by the state’s controversial recapture policy, which mandates that districts deemed “property rich” give money back to the state from their maintenance and operation budgets for redistribution to so-called property poor districts (the law is also known as the “Robin Hood” policy). A district’s status as property rich or poor is determined by a valuation of taxable property conducted by the comptroller’s office and the number of students enrolled — because Marfa has both skyrocketing property values and dwindling enrollment in its public school system, it forks over a hefty sum each year.

This year, that sum amounts to $1,463,705. The overall deficit haunting the district’s budget is $1,429,719.

“If we didn’t have recapture we’d be perfectly fine,” said Rivera. “But it’s killing us.”

As of now, Marfa ISD is receiving less than $100,000 from the state.

Hypothetically, “property rich” districts like Marfa are supposed to rely primarily on funding from property taxes. In reality, those taxes are failing to meet the district’s needs. Recently passed legislation, if approved by voters in November, would enact a historic $18 billion property tax reduction — a plan that would more than double homestead exemptions for Texas property owners while slashing the amount they pay into the school district’s maintenance and operations budget. 

About $7 billion will be funneled into school districts to make up for those lost taxes, according to the bill’s author, State Senator Paul Bettencourt. But there is major concern among Texas educators and advocates that state funding for education will not hold up long-term.

Legislative attempts to increase school funding ultimately died this past session, to the disappointment of local educators. Governor Greg Abbott has said there will be a special session held later this year to address education, but it remains to be seen what will come of it. “Hopefully during special session, they’ll come up with some sort of relief,” said Rivera. For now, the district is in the red.

Ultimately, seeing little choice, the board voted in favor of the proposed budget. 

The board also voted in favor of a defeasance, or paying off a greater chunk of the debt accrued from previous bonds than the district’s regular annual payments of $432,000. While the state sets the district’s maintenance and operation (M&O) tax rate of .6692, the district has some leeway to adjust its interest and sinking (I&S) tax rate to cover the defeasance. 

The board voted in favor of an order stating their intention to defease, but not specifying the precise amount it intends to pay off this year — that may depend on the amount of tax collected in January, said Duane Westerman of SAMCO Capital, the district’s bond advisor. But the vote would allow the district to move forward with an elevated I&S tax rate.

The board voted in favor of a .15465 I&S tax rate in order to pay off a higher portion of its debt — a slight increase from the 15 cent rate imposed routinely.

Extension of COVID leave

After a number of students reportedly tested positive at the start of the school year, the board revisited the district’s COVID leave policy, ultimately voting in favor of granting five days of paid leave for teachers and staff who test positive for COVID. The five days of quarantine  — previously 10 — is in keeping with the CDC’s current guidelines, which are recommended by the TEA, said Interim Superintendent Arturo Alferez.

 The move comes after a flurry of concern across social media regarding the purported COVID outbreak among students, sparking some concern and confusion among parents. But while Board President Teresa Nuñez said she would like to see a policy of some kind in place for students, not just staff, others cautioned that their hands were tied when it came to getting and distributing information about students’ health, in light of the end of the federal public health emergency this year.       

“We do need to understand that we as a school no longer have an obligation nor do we have a right to know why the students are out,” said Board Member and nurse Jurado.

While parents certainly may call the school and inform staff if their child tests positive for COVID to explain absences, said Jurado, the school would not be sending out school-wide memos on the matter as it had in the past.   

As for teachers, the board determined that it would be in the school’s best interest to grant staffers five days of leave in order to prevent the spread of the virus in school. Without such a policy in place, noted Athletics Director Linda Ojeda, staff would be put in the position of choosing between their health — and the health of those around them — and their paychecks.

“I think if we present this, it’ll deter them from coming to school,” said Ojeda. “When you start taking people’s money away, they’ll be like, ‘You know what, I don’t have COVID, I’m coming back.’ And then what happens?”