Fort Worth ISD Chief Financial Officer Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria whipped out her iPhone and tapped on the calculator app.
Several school board members threw out suggestions for how to change the district’s proposed pay raise package. They wanted to know how changing the staff-suggested pay increases would affect the already unbalanced budget for the 2022-23 school year.
The CFO quickly pecked her phone’s screen. Each percentage point change to proposed raises for different categories of employees — teachers, administration as well as nurses, librarians and counselors — would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions, further increasing the budget’s $40.3 million deficit.
This back and forth is policy making in action. However, these proposals affect 9,470 employees — forming 83% of the almost $820 million general fund budget — and were suggested three days before Fort Worth ISD’s budget deadline on July 1. Although trustees approved the budget in an 8-1 vote, some voiced concerns that the process went against their roles as stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Trustee Camile Rodriguez described the budget process as wrong and not transparent for anyone — the school board included. She was the sole trustee to dissent.
Some trustees’ requests for more details on the budget weren’t answered before the meeting scheduled for the vote, she said. She thought the district’s administration expected a rubber stamp from trustees, who ultimately have the final say on the budget.
“I strongly suggest that some of the staff check themselves. We are all beholden to the public,” Rodriguez said.
The budget is not rooted in reality, Rodriguez said. Fort Worth ISD has lost 12,578 students since 2016, when enrollment reached an all-time high. Staffing, particularly at central administration, has not been adjusted to compensate for this loss, she said.
Administrators cut nearly $46 million in this year’s general fund budget. That represents a 5% decrease.
But those cuts did not keep with the district’s revenue decrease. Revenue dropped 4.4%, or $35.3 million, to $779.1 million from last year’s $814.4 million.
The $40.3 million deficit is expected to be covered through the general fund fund balance.
Fort Worth ISD plans to work toward a balanced budget over the next few years, said Arrieta-Candelaria, the CFO. To get there, the district will use federal stimulus dollars. The district expects to receive more than $261 million in one-time federal funds over the next three years, according to officials.
Other trustees also expressed concern about how the school board considers some expensive items. At the June 28 meeting, the school board had several proposals on the consent agenda, including four recommendations well over $1 million. They included:
- Nearly $8.6 million in insurance to cover items including property, terrorism, flood, cyber crime and girls flag football.
- $1.5 million to buy touchless water fountains using the district’s federal stimulus dollars.
- $1.2 million for marketing services to advertise the district to recruit more students.
- More than $3.3 million for contracted student support services, case management and wraparound services for the new school year paid for through federal stimulus funds.
Trustee Wallace Bridges listened as school board member Michael Ryan read through the 43 items on the consent agenda, a list of items considered routine that can be approved in one vote. With each item, Ryan read the cost. Bridges thought to himself, “Whoa, wait a minute.”
“It’s just a lot to make a decision on without getting more details about it,” Bridges said.
Rodriguez agreed. She suggested the board move certain items that hit a threshold over to another part of the agenda.
“These are some very high-dollar amounts that I think warrant discussion for ourselves, the community and the taxpayer,” she said.
Fort Worth ISD did not respond to questions by deadline because of a school board meeting on July 12.
Ultimately, property taxpayers pay for most of the district’s budget. More than 61% of the district’s revenues come from property taxes.
Property tax revenue is expected to drop more than $12 million when compared to last year. That is a 2.5% decrease. However, officials anticipate keeping the tax rate the same despite the total taxable value of all property in the district increasing 9.6%, according to preliminary numbers from the Tarrant Appraisal District.
Fort Worth ISD’s chief financial officer told trustees in May to expect revenues to change after property values are finalized in late July. The appraisal numbers on which the budget is based also do not include new property tax exemptions that voters recently approved.
The school district will revise these numbers through a budget amendment to reflect the anticipated revenue based on the final values, which should include all exemptions property owners receive.
Two rates form the overall tax the district levies. The maintenance-and-operations rate goes toward the general fund and keeps the district running. The debt service rate pays for any debt Fort Worth ISD has taken on.
The proposed maintenance-and-operations rate is $1.0512, and the proposed debt service rate is 29.2 cents. The proposed overall rate is $1.3432 per $100 of appraised value.
The average taxable value of a home in Fort Worth ISD increased 4.3% to $158,969. That homeowner’s property tax bill to the school district would be $2,135.27 — an increase of $88.
To maintain the same level of revenue as the previous year, the school board would have to adopt the no-new-revenue rate of $1.03135. The school board could adopt a rate lower than that. However, it cannot go above the voter-approval rate of $1.3432, or else the district would have to put the tax on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Officials, however, have said the rate could be lower than anticipated, depending on the final appraised values of property in the district.
Trustees are expected to finalize the tax rate at their Aug. 23 meeting.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.