A Socorro ISD bus waited for students at Montwood High School in early August as schools re-opened on a limited basis. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso districts could lose millions of dollars next year if the Texas Education Agency starts funding them based on current attendance levels, which are far below those seen last school year.

The TEA funded districts at pre-pandemic attendance levels for the first 18 weeks of the school year. As the end of the grace period nears, superintendents, lawmakers and public education advocates have put pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to extend this “hold harmless” protection for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

Earlier this month, Morath said the state doesn’t have plans to extend the protection, The Texas Tribune reported. TEA spokesperson Jake Kobersky said Dec. 18 a final decision hasn’t been made, and there is “no definitive timeframe” as to when that could happen.

Statewide, enrollment is down about 3%, or by nearly 156,800 students, compared to the same time last year, according to mid-October data TEA collected.

El Paso’s three largest districts — El Paso, Socorro and Ysleta — saw their enrollment drop by a combined 7,000 students compared to last fall, a 5% decrease. Though some of that loss is part of the enrollment decline the region has seen over the last decade, attendance numbers are still below what they anticipated when they created their budgets last spring.

The El Paso Independent School District projected in May that approximately 54,000 students would be enrolled this year, about 1,200 fewer than last year. Its enrollment was nearly 50,700 in mid-October. That’s an 8% decrease from last fall, more than double the 3.6% decrease seen from 2018-19 to 2019-20.

No EPISD administrator was made available to discuss the financial impact if the “hold harmless” provision expires this month. Districts receive a minimum $6,160 per student in state funds, so EPISD could be a risk of losing at least $7.3 million.

The Ysleta Independent School District would lose about $8 million in state funds if the provision ends, said Chief Financial and Operations Officer Lynly Leeper. YISD plans for an annual 500 student drop, she said, but this year, enrollment is down by 2,000 students, or almost 5%.

“We have a healthy fund balance, but we don’t want to draw from that unnecessarily,” Leeper said. “So the first thing we’ll do is just monitor expenditures through the fiscal year. We will be very careful.”

Building maintenance investments may be put on hold, and YISD may delay filling existing vacancies. “Right now we’re not looking at anything like a reduction in force, or layoffs or anything like that,” Leeper said.

El Dorado High School athletes met in a parking lot for practice on a Monday morning in early August. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Socorro Independent School District would see a $5.4 million state funding decrease, said Chief Financial Officer Tony Reza. About 500 fewer students are attending this fall than expected.

“We would like to get everything we can (from the state), but it’s certainly something we can manage,” Reza said. SISD would dip into its $160 million fund balance, or reserves, to make up for this loss and avoid staffing cuts, as personnel costs make up most of the budget.

This is the first year Socorro has seen its overall enrollment decline after a decade of growth. It saw the biggest drops in early education and kindergarten, according to an El Paso Matters analysis. Early education enrollment is down 64%, or by 133 students, and 250 fewer kindergartners are enrolled this fall, an 8.5% decrease. 

El Paso and Ysleta saw the biggest drops at the prekindergarten levels, in addition to large declines in kindergarten enrollment, a trend seen nationwide this fall.

“Those are the students that parents say, ‘you know, it’s not required for me to have them in school yet, let me just wait for this pandemic to end,’” said Marivel Macias, SISD assistant superintendent of administrative services. Texas law does not require children to enroll in school until first grade.

Socorro schools, like those in El Paso and Ysleta, have remained mostly virtual this fall, with only limited numbers of students learning on campus. Once El Paso County’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate falls below 20% for seven consecutive days, more students will be allowed back on campus, with priority given to elementary grades. This could cause enrollment to increase if parents who opted not to have their youngest kids participate in online learning have them return for in-person learning, Macias said.

Ysleta also expects to see a slight enrollment boost at the prekindergarten and kindergarten levels when schools reopen to more students. It will do a second pre-K enrollment campaign once that happens to recruit more kids, Associate Superintendent of Elementary Schools Brenda Chacon said.

But enrollment will still be down — and some students still missing — this spring because many families left El Paso in search of work during the pandemic. The extended coronavirus closure of the U.S.-Mexico border may have led students living in Juárez to enter the Mexican school system.

Montwood High School athletes finish a morning practice in August as schools reopened on a limited basis. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The fall’s “extreme declines in enrollment” are expected to carry over into the spring “until the virus is slowed and the majority of Texans are vaccinated,” according to a Dec. 14 letter that 23 education groups sent the governor and education commissioner urging them to extend the “hold harmless” provision.

The state set aside funding for this school year during the 2019 legislative session, said Bill Popinski, policy director for Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy group. Though ending the “hold harmless” guarantee would save the state money, it would handicap districts which have already spent most of their budgets for this year and could be forced to lay off teachers or cut programs, he said.

Those consequences would be felt when students eventually return to classrooms.

“We want them to return to a thriving public education system where everything’s in place, ready to go and then teachers and staff are ramped up to be able to provide these quality education methods to get them over the COVID slide,” Popinski said.

Cover photo: A Socorro ISD bus waited for students at Montwood High School in early August as schools reopened on a limited basis. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.