Fort Davis ISD’s future looking brighter

A Fort Davis High School football player pushes a weighted sled during practice Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Fort Davis. (OA FILE PHOTO)

Through partnerships with private and public organizations, Fort Davis ISD is turning its financial situation around.

For several years it looked like FDISD was facing the possibility of closure or consolidation, but after an article in Texas Monthly came out in May 2023 where Superintendent Graydon Hicks detailed their dire straits things started to change.

For years, Hicks sent articles to newspapers and magazines talking about the “terrible public school finance policy” in the state.

“For eight years, I’ve been (hitting) my head against a wall. Somebody from Texas Monthly wrote an article in 2022, but they didn’t publish it until May of 2023. A lady that had been a former superintendent in the Valley called me and said did you know you could make these partnerships and generate extra money and I said I did not and from there we just got more information and got rolling with it,” Hicks said.

The former superintendent he referred to is Michelle Hartmann, now deputy superintendent for Fort Davis in charge of the partnerships, who implemented a similar program at Pawnee ISD where she was superintendent. She works in person and remotely.

“This was the difference. I didn’t have any option. I had to do something and this program came up. … It was very providential the way it happened. We’re making it work. We’re not just going to survive, but we’re hopefully going to thrive. We’re going to be able to pursue some construction projects. When I say construction, I’m talking about just building a shed for our vehicles because they sit out in the sun; talking about giving some relatively minor raises to our staff, and when I say minor we’re still one of the lowest paid in the area. We’re going to take it a little bit slow” on what they are going to do with the extra funding because he wants to build the fund balance back up.

Without these partnerships, Hicks said he didn’t know if FDISD would have to close their doors or consolidate.

“But I can tell you this, I would have been out of cash by this point already,” Hicks said in a June 10 phone interview.

According to the Texas Education Agency website, public-private prekindergarten partnerships are collaborations between local education agencies (LEAs) such as school districts or open-enrollment charter schools, and private child care or Head Start programs. LEAs, and private child care or Head Start programs, may establish formal or informal partnerships based on enrollment and development activities. The partnerships are developed to reflect the needs of children and families, local resources available, and community trends.

It’s designed to allow the public school district to get the benefit of having those kids enrolled in their district and they get credit for average daily attendance.

The school district configures their partnership agreement how they may want to share those extra revenues.

“Maybe they want to hire one of the organization’s teachers, or maybe they want to make a lease payment to basically rent that organization’s instructional space, or maybe they want to have an administrator. There are multiple ways to configure an agreement that benefits both parties from the extra revenue those kids generate being enrolled in the public school,” Hicks said.

He added that Fort Davis ISD has several partners.

“I try to keep it as simple as possible. We don’t want any complication, so they give me an estimate of the number of children that they will enroll in Fort Davis ISD in grades pre-k through second. They don’t go above second because those kids would then have to take STAAR exams and most of the parents in private schools don’t want their children to do that. Kids in kindergarten, first and second are eligible to receive the full allotment of $6,160 per year if they’re in school all year long and they can earn that much money to the district,” Hicks said.

“Pre-k kids have to meet a certain eligibility criteria, and if they meet that criteria they only earn half that amount per year,” he added.

In 2008, his local tax collections were about $1.8 million. The state allocation to Fort Davis ISD from the state was $3.8 million.

This year, the district’s tax collections are going to be about $1.9 million and they were only going to get $70,000 from the state.

“And I’m still considered property rich,” Hicks said.

“Now because of these partnerships we’ve been able to negotiate, I’m going to be getting $1.5 million from the state this year. Next year, I anticipate we could be getting as much as $3.5 million from the state,” he added.

Currently, Fort Davis ISD is partnering with three organizations in El Paso; one in Monahans; one in Burleson; two in Alpine; and one in Marfa. Next year, he’ll have all of those partners, plus a private school in Harlingen, possibly one in Austin and two more in El Paso.

Students don’t have to attend school in Fort Davis. They go to school wherever they are and are managed by staff at those locations.

What’s in it for the partners?

When Hicks figures out how much money the added students will bring in, which is an estimate at the beginning of the year, he splits the extra revenue right down the middle.

“One organization they got the equivalent of about $300,000 so that’s extra revenue for them and it’s extra revenue for me, so we’re able to meet the needs of children whether they’re in Fort Davis or somewhere else. We’ve even been able to add some security upgrades to one of our partners; been able to fund some new items for them; some access points; and some cameras and PA systems. It’s very beneficial. It’s the right thing to do,” Hicks said.

This year, Hicks ended the year in Fort Davis with 170 students.

Next year, he expects to have more than 700 enrolled and if another partnership comes through it could add another 300 or 400 children.

Fort Davis ISD has 43 on staff, including 30 that are teachers and aides.

Hicks said they are fully staffed and don’t expect to hire more. The district hired Hartmann so she could devote her time and expertise to the partnerships.

Fort Davis does not have bus routes or a cafeteria and they offer music, but no marching band.

“We did put a music program back in, but it’s not band; just music. We’re going to grow it from elementary through high school year by year. We’re going to do plays, not just instruments but choral so we’re not going to do any marching band,” Hicks said.

The Davis Mountains State Park in Fort Davis. For several years it looked like Fort Davis ISD was facing the possibility of closure or consolidation, but after an article in Texas Monthly came out in May 2023 where Superintendent Graydon Hicks detailed their dire straits things started to change. (Odessa American File Photo)

He said the district is blessed.

“Things just kind of happened at the necessary time. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen and we’re just blessed,” Hicks said.

Hartmann was superintendent at Pawnee ISD, a prekindergarten through eighth grade district in Bee County, for about nine years.

“We paid an awful lot in recapture, so I started examining and looking at ways that we could counter the financial challenges that we were having. … We were returning millions of dollars, but yet we were servicing low-income children that needed those services of ESL and all your special programs,” Hartmann said.

ESL stands for English as a second language.

“I started studying the education code and looked for opportunities of what can we do to solve (this). … Texas Education Code 11.167 allows a district to go outside their boundaries to form a program, or campus, or partnerships in this manner. I started partnering public and private, Head Start, so some federal programs, community college partnerships as well as some partnerships that were district and district. That increased our enrollment.

“When I started in Pawnee, our enrollment was about 136, very similar to Fort Davis; small, rural. When I left, my enrollment was right around 1,200,” Hartmann said.

The partnerships also allowed her district to keep its local tax rate low and increase wages to a more competitive level.

“It really is an efficient way of utilizing taxpayer money as well as just quality,” Hartmann said.

Hartmann, Hicks and the FDISD board started talking in January of this year.

She was also appointed to the board of the Texas Association for Educating Young Children this June. Its website says the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children is “a professional membership association that works to increase access to high-quality early childhood education and to advance a diverse, well-prepared, and well-compensated early childhood profession.”