Stimulus funding and South Texas school districts: Here's what to know

Robin Bradshaw
Alice Echo News Journal
The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is the entity in control and the deciding factor on how the American Rescue Plan Funds will flow to school districts, and what amount will be actually granted.

President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan for stimulus federal funding on Thursday, March 11, which included $12.5 billion for Texas schools.

However, many South Texas education leaders are not budgeting or planning for any of the funds in the near future. 

That's because the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is the entity in control and the decider on how the American Rescue Plan funds will flow to area school districts, and what amounts will be granted.

What's the funding for?

Education funding under the American Rescue Plan, and the two prior federal stimulus bills, were intended to help with a number of COVID-19 related needs, including academic and social-emotional programs, hiring counselors and nurses, and modernizing facilities and HVAC systems. That's right, part of this bill specifically has funding to update air conditioning, heating ventilation and duct work systems in schools.

"In my 35-year career in education, I have never seen federal funding that targeted ventilation systems in schools. It's intended to help decrease the spread of diseases and is very progressive," said Steve VanMantre, Premont Independent School District superintendent. 

The $12.5 billion stimulus package  is in addition to the $1.3 billion and $5.5 billion provided under the first two rounds of COVID-19-related federal stimulus legislation.

"There is a lot of speculation out there and we've seen amounts published; however, the Alice Independent School District (AISD) has not received any official notification from TEA," said Dr. Carl Scarbrough, Alice ISD's superintendent.

Last year the district received about $1.7 million from CARES funds but TEA reduced state revenue by about 90 percent of that.

"So it basically supplanted the funds. The majority of CARES funds was spent on Instructional technology," Scarbrough explained.

Texas initially received $1.3 billion in stimulus funding in the spring of 2020. However, state leaders replaced that money (meaning they swapped out state funding for federal funding). This resulted in school districts not receiving any additional dollars under the program, according to Raise your Hand Texas, a nonprofit in Austin. Now, the second and third rounds of federal stimulus money (totaling $17.9 billion) are awaiting dispersal, with the $5.5 billion provided in round two currently being considered by the Texas legislature, stated in the report. 

Several South Texas school district leaders are urging that legislators flow a larger percentage of the federal funds to districts, and not use it to replace local or state funding.

VanMantre was in Austin this week alongside State Rep. J.M. Lozano advocating for the Premont rural school district for increased teacher pay and funds to support career technology programs.

Unlike many Texas school districts, Premont ISD has doubled its attendance even amidst the pandemic prompting a question about the "hold harmless" policy.

Premont ISD Superintendent Steve Van Mantre and State Representative J.M. Lozano

What is a 'hold harmless' policy? 

Under normal circumstances, schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled and daily attendance on-campus, but that has changed because of the pandemic. State officials say the “hold harmless” is on hold and the policy means funding will be available for school districts, despite attendance and enrollment declines because of the pandemic for the rest of the 2020-21 academic year.

"There are some challenges being presented on the current stimulus package and the allowable and non-allowable distributions as specified in the federal outlined criteria," Scarbrough said. "As of last week, TEA had no additional information on how funds will flow pending any Texas Legislative action."

VanMantre agreed there's uncertainty about how long a decision on funds will take and what a delay could mean.

"That's the million-dollar question," he said. "The reality is Texas districts probably won't be able to budget and plan for the funds until maybe late summer or the fall semester."