September 27, 2023 822 PM
FORT DAVIS — With public school funding in a state of turmoil across Texas, Fort Davis ISD is turning to an unorthodox solution to increase state aid: partnerships with early childhood programs wherein dual enrollment is meant to financially benefit both entities.
Superintendent Graydon Hicks, who has long told of his district’s financial ruin at the hand of a flawed state funding formula, said he first became aware of the private school partnerships — a Texas Education Agency program — this summer and immediately “jumped on it and started working on proposals for these organizations.”
“For Fort Davis, it is the only option left. [The school board] understands how much this means to Fort Davis and keeping our doors open and our kids serviced,” said Hicks. “We get the satisfaction on the other side of knowing that some other children are reaping benefits from this as well.”
This school year, FDISD entered into one-year, renewable legal agreements with both Alpine Christian School and Alpine Montessori as well as schools in Monahans and El Paso. These schools enroll pre-kindergarten through second-grade students — who aren’t subject to state testing, simplifying the deal — with FDISD, and in turn get 50% of the additional state aid the district receives for those students.
“[They] don’t have to start wearing green and gold, [they] don’t have to have the Indian mascot,” said Hicks. “Nothing changes, literally nothing changes except for paperwork.”
At the start of the school year FDISD had around 167 students enrolled, but Hicks anticipates that number will nearly double to around 300 students by the end of October once new partnerships are finalized.
That influx in enrollment will not result in more children physically entering Fort Davis classrooms, but will allow the district to receive the state minimum allotment per pupil of $6,160, or, in some cases for three and four-year-olds, just over $3,000. Attendance is another state funding factor, and private schools who partner with FDISD will have to provide daily attendance reports, said Hicks.
Alpine Montessori plans to enroll 28 students with FDISD, which could result in roughly $172,000 total, or a $86,000 split, for each entity. Katie Nixon, an Alpine Montessori board member, said in addition to the funds, the entity was looking forward to having access to more teacher training and resources for students. The district may also help purchase technology or supplies for the private schools. (Alpine Christian School declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the newness of the partnership.)
For Fort Davis, the current addition of 133 students could result in $400,000. But it will be a year before any money is realized due to TEA’s funding cycles, said Hicks. Any surplus received will initially go towards building the district’s fund balance, or savings, account back up as well as teacher salary increases, said Hicks.
In FDISD’s case, the increase in enrollment may result in the district no longer being subject to recapture — payments the district makes to the state because it is considered to have “excess wealth” per student, a result of low enrollment coinciding with high property values. Last school year the district paid around $30,000 in recapture.
As far as Hicks is concerned, the private school partnership solution is a “win-win.” “We get a little money, they get a little money, we get out of recapture and the state pays their fair share,” said Hicks.
He said at first the partner organizations he approached questioned the initiative’s legality, but he assured them it was a state-supported program. According to the TEA, 174 districts across the state utilize the “Early Learning Public-Private Partnerships” program, which began in 2003.
“All of the organizations on the initial call were skeptical that this was a legitimate program,” said Hicks. “They couldn’t believe that there was actually a way to secure money without all of the bureaucratic red tape and requirements.”
But the partnerships aren’t without their complications. Despite the fact that these transactions are not affecting classroom operations, in order to meet required student to teacher ratios,
FDISD will have to hire staff from partner organizations, effectively adding them to their payroll, even though they are not physically working within the district and will remain with private schools.
They will also have to do evaluations on staff they hire in collaboration with the private schools where they actually work. The money for their salaries and benefits will come out of the private school’s 50% split, as would any supply purchases, said Hicks.
But while FDISD absorbing a staff member will result in cost savings immediately for the private school, the district has to pick up that expense before increased enrollment funds are realized next fall. Hicks said he recently submitted documentation to TEA requesting additional cash flow to remedy the issue.
“I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s a real challenge,” said Hicks. “I’m saying I need [TEA] to adjust my numbers up because I’m really going to be closer to 300 on my attendance projection, and I need the additional funding now, so that I can keep my cash flow solvent until we get to the settlement period next September.”
“If they say no, then I’m gonna have a problem,” Hicks added. “But I promise you I’ll figure it out.”
There is also the matter of special education and English as a second language (ESL) students, who require more resources, therefore receive more funding from the state. Hicks said the early childhood private school partnerships they are entering into will include a couple of students in those populations.
FDISD will be legally obligated to provide certain services to those students, which would involve going to the private schools where the kids are located, said Hicks. When asked whether that would put a strain on FDISD resources and staffing, Hicks said details were still being worked out, and while meeting those requirements for students in Alpine may be feasible, it would not be for students involved in El Paso school partnerships.
“I’m not gonna mess around with failing to provide services that these kids require,” said Hicks. “On the flip side, since these are private schools, they can choose who they want to enroll as well.”
“Let’s say we have a special ed child in El Paso that’s going to require a great deal of resources, my recommendation to those parents and to that private school would be: don’t enroll that child in Fort Davis, enroll that child in the school district in which they reside,” he added.
Whether FDISD will be able to sustain these partnerships remains to be seen. Hicks said all the responsibility to keep up with state requirements falls on him, and he intends to make the agreements as easy as possible on the collaborating schools.
Alpine ISD Superintendent Michelle Rinehart recently told The Alpine Avalanche that AISD was open to partnering with local early childhood programs as well. Alpine Montessori told The Big Bend Sentinel it plans to partner with AISD for the 2024 school year.
While the partnerships differ from the school choice program — the controversial, hotly-debated subject of a forthcoming special legislative session — in structure, at the core they both involve valuable public education dollars funneling into private school coffers. A similarity Hicks believes gives the private school partnerships political staying power.
“That’s why I don’t think anybody can say anything about it,” said Hicks. “Because the leadership in Austin right now are so bent on school vouchers. If there’s public money going to private school, they’re not gonna say anything about that. They’re gonna cheer that, they’re gonna support that.”