AUSTIN (KXAN) — There have been a lot of different numbers and percentages thrown around when discussing “Hold Harmless” funding for the Austin Independent School District as students close out the 2020-21 school year.
Along with those figures came a push from the school district, encouraging families to send their children to school for the final weeks of classes.
“There are six weeks left in the school year,” read a boilerplate letter sent to families across the district. “Six weeks to finish strong. Six weeks to better prepare for next year. After the last 12 months, we can’t afford to waste the next six weeks.”
It’s led to confusion among teachers, reporters and parents, as they weigh the risk of exposing their kids to COVID-19 against watching their local school district potentially lose millions of dollars in funding.
KXAN reached out to Austin ISD leaders and the Texas Education Agency for clarification on what percentages need to be met and how much money is really at stake.
Last month, when the TEA announced it would hold school districts harmless for drops in enrollment during the pandemic, the TEA tied the promise to certain criteria which must be met by the school district during the final six weeks:
- A school district’s average on-campus attendance participation rate during the sixth 6 weeks attendance reporting period is equal to or greater than 80% of all students educated; or
- A school district’s average on campus attendance participation rate during the sixth 6 weeks attendance reporting period is equal to or greater than the on-campus snapshot the district provided on a single day to the TEA in October.
In other words, to satisfy criteria 2 listed above, for the final six weeks of the school year, AISD must maintain a benchmark of on-campus attendance in order to receive funding. The percentage is derived from the single day “snapshot” the district provided to the TEA in October. The snapshot for Austin ISD was 23.6%.
AISD funding is guaranteed and automatic for the 1st and 2nd six weeks, accounting for $8-10 million dollars.
During the 3rd six-week period, which contained Thanksgiving, Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde called for all students to remain 100% virtual after the holiday. Because of this decision, AISD failed to meet the TEA requirement of offering on-campus attendance to anyone who wanted it and thus, must meet an elevated in-person attendance target of 44% during the last grading period to capture the $4-5 million that 3rd grading period accounts for.
For the 4th, 5th and 6th six weeks, Austin ISD will only need to meet the in-person attendance rate of 23.6% in order to receive the approximately $15 million of Hold Harmless Funding that remains.
In essence, only approximately $4-5 million is on the line for Austin ISD if they don’t hit the 44% benchmark. The remaining ~$15M would be guaranteed if the district continues its current attendance rates and meets the 23.6% as outlined by the TEA.
This contradicts letters that various parents received in their inboxes, stating AISD is at risk of losing $30 million if it doesn’t reach 44% in-person attendance during the final six weeks.
“In order to receive approximately $30M in TEA funding, Austin ISD is hoping to meet the benchmark of 44% of district students participating in on-campus learning during the last six weeks of the school year,” one letter, sent to Bowie High School parents earlier this week, read.
A different email to LASA parents has similar language: “In order to receive approximately $30M in TEA funding, Austin ISD is hoping to have at least 44% of district students participating in on campus learning during the last six weeks grading cycle,” the letter read.
Dr. Jacob Reach, Austin ISD’s Chief of Governmental Relations and Board Services, cleared up the confusion with KXAN on Wednesday.
“We would have to hit the 43.6% in order to get the Hold Harmless for all the six week periods available,” Reach said. “We want to ensure that all of our families know that our campuses are open for them, and that it is safe for students. But as far as looking at that target for the TEA, the focus would be on middle and high school.”
Reach said currently, elementary schools are averaging just over 50% in-person attendance. Middle schools are around 25%, and high schools are 18%.
Regardless, Austin ISD leaders want to assure families that campuses are continuing to follow mask policies and CDC guidelines for schools. Reach said the virtual option will be available for all families through the remainder of the school year.
KXAN has reached out to the TEA for comment. TEA representatives were cooperative and shared detailed information on how the Hold Harmless funding process works, but did not comment specifically on the funding situation within Austin ISD.