Austin ISD encourages families to send students in person for final 6 weeks — millions in funding could be at stake


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story read that $30 million was at stake if Austin ISD failed to reach an in-person attendance rate of 44%. The district has since clarified that only $4-5 million would be at risk if attendance doesn’t reach that benchmark. The remaining Hold Harmless Funding would be guaranteed by the TEA if AISD students meet a 23.6% threshold, a percentage derived from TEA records.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — “The room beats Zoom,” said one Austin Independent School District principal in a letter to his school’s community on Tuesday — one of many messages from the district encouraging families to send students in person for what remains of the school year.

The letter, sent to parents at several schools, cites low positivity rates on campuses and access to the vaccine the district said is being given to all teachers and staff members.

Meanwhile, letters sent to parents at Bowie High School and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy explain Austin ISD needs at least 44% of district students to participate in on-campus learning during the last six weeks in order to receive about $30 million in funding from the Texas Education Agency.

AISD has since clarified the language, saying that $30 million is not the correct number that is currently at stake.

“The total amount Austin ISD could get for hold harmless is $30M. The district already secured about $10M of those in the 1st and 2nd six weeks. Up to $20M is still at stake during the last six weeks, pending on-campus participation,” an email from an AISD spokesperson to KXAN reads.

“Our elementary schools as an average are just over 50%, our middle schools are around 25% and our high schools are around 18%,” said Jacob Reach, Austin ISD chief of governmental relations.

Reach said the 44% threshold is the number set by the TEA. The district failed to meet the attendance requirements set by the agency for the 3rd six-week period due to the district’s decision to keep kids remote for the full week following Thanksgiving. The district must now meet 44% in-person attendance in order to secure approximately $5 million that correlates to that 3rd six-week period.

A graph showing how much money each six-week period accounts for in Hold Harmless Funding.

In addition to letters from principals, Austin ISD teachers have been out on the streets reconnecting with students — all in a push to get students back inside the classroom.

“These efforts are just as much about our schools and letting families know what we will be doing next year,” said Reach.

District parents argue it’s an unnecessary and arbitrary number.

“When the TEA does things like this it makes me want to say, ‘you can’t force me to do this. I can choose to keep my kids home,'” said Tazia Rae Salinas.

“The school buildings are still open. They require funding for the open buildings no matter how many children are inside them,” said Daphne Hoffacker.

Hoffacker is part of the Austin Council PTA. She spent her Tuesday urging legislators to release federal stimulus funds to Texas school districts to ease money concerns.

“Parents need to make the decisions on their own and not feel coerced,” said Hoffacker.

Austin ISD said it’s still following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will continue doing so.

In March, the TEA announced school districts would be held harmless for drops in enrollment during the pandemic, however that promise was tied to certain other factors:

  1. 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
  2. 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 6-weeks of the school year, AISD must maintain a benchmark at or above 44% on-campus attendance or risk losing millions in state funding.

“There are six weeks left in the school year,” reads the letter. “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.”

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