Working through a budget crunch will almost certainly be the top issue facing the Fort Worth ISD school board for the foreseeable future.
The district faces a more than $80 million budget deficit. Enrollment is shrinking and that means fewer dollars from the state. And the district is sending excess property tax dollars from local taxpayers back to the state under the Robin Hood law.
Eight candidates are vying for three, single-member school board seats to have a say in how Fort Worth ISD gets itself out of a tough financial situation.
Superintendent Angélica Ramsey has started making moves to balance the budget. She is cutting excess jobs in an effort to reorganize the district to be leaner and more cost effective after losing nearly 15,000 students since 2017. Ramsey expects enrollment to plateau at around 55,000 students.
Enrollment is the foundation for many financial decisions. School districts receive funding based on the number of students attending schools.
Fort Worth ISD has lost a third of its state funding since 2019, the year when the Texas Legislature passed a sweeping school finance reform law. Between 2019 and 2023, the district lost more than $129.6 million in state funding.
Chief Financial Officer Carmen Arrieta-Candeleria is working to shift the district’s budget to an approach called zero-based budgeting. What that means is that every expense in the budget must be justified and the budget must be balanced.
District 2 candidate Pat Carlson said she would be more responsible with taxpayer dollars than her opponent, incumbent Tobi Jackson.
Carlson points to the district’s practice of hiring teachers from other countries as an expense that isn’t needed. Fort Worth ISD can find good teachers in its backyard who stay for years, she said.
The school board on March 28 was set to consider a nearly $1.5 million contract for legal services to navigate immigration law; the item was pulled from consideration.
“I just think that’s a total waste of money,” Carlson said.
Jackson expects the 2023-24 budget to be tight. She said the goal is to not have a deficit, which occurs when spending exceeds revenue.
The school board and top administrators are looking at ways to save money, Jackson said. For example, the district will likely switch health insurance providers to find better and more cost-effective plans, she said.
“Part of that is the reorganization, which will save a lot of money,” Jackson said. “That’s another reason I’m running is I want to be here to support that and support the superintendent.”
Focusing on the students and their academic performance will alleviate Fort Worth ISD’s finances, District 3 candidate Mar’Tayshia James said.
James wants to see how funding affects the performance of each school in the district and apply what’s working to other campuses.
“If we focus on going back to catering to our kids what it is they’re needing and that we are doing that as well, we will have the enrollment rates and we will have the funds that we were needing,” James said.
Doing that should attract more families to Fort Worth ISD, James said.
Incumbent Quinton Phillips said Fort Worth ISD is in sound financial shape because of the district’s A in the state’s accountability system for school finances.
However, the first-term trustee acknowledged the district has run a deficit for as long as he’s been on the school board, a decision he attributed to previous superintendents.
“Within this next budget cycle with our new CFO that we have on, the superintendent and with the new culture of this board saying let’s get away from the deficit budget aspect, people will begin to see Fort Worth ISD is actually operating from a balanced budget,” Phillips said.
For candidate Valeria Nevárez, the deficit could have been avoided if the school board and administrators had focused on their financial responsibilities and had the right priorities.
Projects like the new administration building and other planned renovations aren’t currently needed because of declining enrollment — and those funds would be better used covering the deficit, she said.
Planned school renovations will be funded through the voter-approved $1.2 billion bond from 2021. Bonds must be used for specific purposes, such as building schools, renovations and buying new buses.
People are making money off the bond, Nevárez said, and that doesn’t sit well with her.
“I say this boldly that a lot of people have taken advantage of public education to make money,” she said. “Let’s prioritize classrooms to prioritize academics.”
All decisions in the budget must circle back to academic excellence, District 5 candidate Kevin Lynch said.
Every dollar spent must have an impact on education, he said. If that’s not the case, trustees have to question why, he said.
Taxpayers also cannot be expected to pay more of the district’s bottom line as enrollment declines, Lynch said.
“We’ve kind of kicked the can down the road for probably the last four years and haven’t made the tough decisions that need to be made, and those are things that are going to have to happen,” Lynch said.
To build a better, balanced budget, candidate Josh Yoder wants to make the entire process more transparent to build trust with constituents.
That all starts with a forensic audit of the budget to determine excessive spending, Yoder said.
Trustees have made far too many decisions on expensive items, such as the purchase of the district’s health curriculum, without discussion, he said.
“I believe if we’re able to reallocate the financial resources that are provided by property taxes, I truly believe that we can change the lives of all Fort Worth ISD children through education and through trade programs,” Yoder said.
First-term incumbent CJ Evans has been asking for a zero-based budget since she was elected, she said. As the budget transitions to that approach, Evans expects it will minimize deficit spending.
Looking at what needs to be cut is important, but so is examining what needs to be added. For example, the district’s freshman success coach program has been successful and should be extended to more students, she said.
Evans also makes her priorities known to administrators and other trustees.
“I really try to be transparent in that so everyone knows where I’m coming from,” she said.
Whomever voters choose to represent each of the three districts will have to hit the ground running. June 30 is the deadline for trustees to adopt the next budget.
Fort Worth Report journalist Kristen Barton contributed to this report.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.