Muri details budget discussions

With no action taken by the governor and legislature on increasing school funding, districts across Texas, including Ector County ISD are facing deficit spending.

ECISD is looking at a $24 million deficit for next year and the board of trustees and Superintendent Scott Muri discussed what to do about it during their March 26 board meeting. Muri also talked about it during his media call March 27.

The legislature has earmarked about $5 billion in funds for public education, but the governor and legislature were unable to come to an agreement during the regular legislative session and subsequent special sessions.

School choice was the main sticking point.

“The voucher conversation, as I understand it, is the primary reason that our state legislature — so it’s the House, the Senate and the governor — that can’t agree on that singular issue, nor can they agree on how to appropriately fund public education. Because of that disagreement we are where we are today; very unfortunate for the students that we serve,” Muri said.

As a result of no new funding, the board on March 27 discussed leaving positions vacant, increasing class sizes, and cutting contract services.

The basic allotment for districts has not increased since 2019, but costs have continued to rise. ECISD gets $6,160 per student.

It gets more for special education, economically disadvantaged and gifted and talented students, Chief Financial Officer Deborah Ottmers said during the March 27 meeting.

“Our plan right now is to use $12 million in fund balance and then we will find $12 million worth of cuts that we will make as an organization in order to meet that $24 million budget deficit,” Muri said.

Muri said things like doing more work with fewer people, saving energy, using less paper and fewer copiers could be considered.

“That’s the work. It’s difficult. We’re already a lean organization. Again, we haven’t seen an increase since 2019 yet our expenses have increased. Our insurance has gone from $1 million in 2019 to $4 million today.

Fuel costs have increased from 2019 to today.

“Special education costs have increased from 2019 to today. School safety has increased. So a lot of expenses that we are not in control of have increased and then employee compensation. We’ve spent about $36 million in employee compensation since 2019, so all of those have added up and we have yet to see an increase in the basic allotment since 2019,” Muri said.

Muri said the lack of funds means eliminating positions.

“We typically see a lot of vacancies in our organization, so we don’t anticipate any people will lose their positions. We may have people that will wind up in a different position, but with the attrition that we typically see at the end of every year we feel confident that everybody will find a place in the organization it just may not be the place that you’re currently sitting in today,” he added.

He said they are not considering going to a four-day week at this time.

“Our students have some pretty significant academic needs, and we at this time, don’t feel that a four-day week would be beneficial to the students that we serve so that is not something that we are considering,” Muri said.

He added that the community understands what is happening throughout the state.

“We are not the only district. This is north, south, east and west. Our moms and dads across the state of Texas are well aware of what’s happening in public education right now, so these unfortunately are not surprises. We’ve seen this coming and we’ve been pretty public with the fact that we’re going to face a deficit. As our public remembers, last year we started the year with a $13 million budget deficit fully anticipating the state legislature to come through with funding. That didn’t happen. We just can’t risk that again,” Muri said. “We cannot take a $24 million budget deficit and hope that the state comes through, so at this time we have to make those cuts.”

The goal is that the state eventually does decide to “appropriately fund public education and at some point in the future we hope to see those dollars. But we do not anticipate anything additional for at least a full year,” he added.

Asked whether substitute pay would be reduced, Muri said they are not considered lowering salaries for any employee.

“That is not a discussion or not even on the table for consideration. That would be a drastic measure, and perhaps next year if the state continues to hold on to that money and not release it we may be in that type of situation, but that is not where we are today,” Muri said.

Adjustments have already been approved by the board to make Burleson, currently a kindergarten through fifth grade, into an early education center, which would save $690,273.55 for a year.

Pease, Noel and Zavala will become kindergarten through fifth grade schools.

Zavala is currently prekindergarten through second grade. Travis is third through fifth grade.

Noel is grades three through five. Pease is prekindergarten through second.

Ector Middle School transitioning back into the district will save $2.5 million.

Travis will be repurposed, but there is not a specific plan for it right now. Travis cost savings is $566,454.09.

Muri said that this will take care of some of the lesser populated schools.

“This strategy will not be an option in the future as we’re also a growing district, so we have a need for even more seats,” he added.

Tuesday night the board approved almost $300 million in bond sales. ECISD will be going to the bond market within the next 6 to 8 weeks to sell those bonds.

The current plan is to sell the bonds on the market toward the end of May and early June. Muri said they will probably a full year before we sell the final truanch of bonds.

“The first individuals that will have an opportunity to purchase those bonds will be residents of Ector County, and so if you are interested in purchasing any of the bonds once they hit the market we will have a process to notify our local constituents. They sell quickly, so literally they will sell within minutes and Ector County residents will have an opportunity to purchase them first before they actually go to the open market. … These are government bonds and they’re secured with a triple A bond rating and always send extremely well,” he added.

Once the bonds sell, ECISD will use the proceeds over the next couple of years to build a new middle school, a new career and technical education facility and many other projects.

One proposition of a three proposition bond was approved Nov. 7, 2023, to fund these any many other projects.