Pflugerville ISD might close schools. The superintendent blames insufficient state funding.
Superintendent Douglas Killian did not mince words when he announced Pflugerville ISD was considering closing several elementary schools in an effort to cut at least $10 million in costs.
“It seems like the entire five and a half years I’ve been here, I think we only had one year where we didn’t have to make some cut somewhere,” he told parents at a school board meeting Thursday. “It’s exhausting and it’s demoralizing.”
The elementary schools that could be shuttered are Parmer Lane, River Oaks, Dessau, Spring Hill, Brook Hollow and Pflugerville.
At Thursday's meeting, PfISD officials laid out 10 proposals for redrawing district boundaries to address uneven enrollment next school year. While some campuses are at capacity, others are underutilized.
The proposals outline different scenarios for closures. One plan would close Spring Hill and Brook Hollow, for example, while another would close Parmer Lane and Dessau. One proposal did not include any elementary school closures.
Killian told families the district does not want to close schools.
“You’re preaching to the choir," he said.
Killian said Pflugerville ISD faces a number of financial challenges that are forcing it to consider closures. First and foremost, he said, the district does not get enough money from the State of Texas.
“This is a legislative issue. It’s been a legislative issue for years,” he told families.
Killian said the state’s school finance system fails to adequately fund districts like PfISD. For one thing, the base funding per student in Texas has been stagnant since 2019. That year, state lawmakers raised the basic allotment from $5,140 to $6,160; but Killian said the figure is not adjusted for inflation.
“We need a raise in the basic allotment to make our district operate,” he said.
"As a school district for us to maintain our schools and to move forward, these changes are going to have to be made. And if it’s not this school, it’s going to be that school.”August Plock, Pflugerville High social studies teacher and vice president of the teachers union
Another challenge the district faces is that enrollment has declined and attendance rates have dropped in the wake of the pandemic. Texas is one of just six states in the U.S. that fund schools based on attendance instead of enrollment. Killian said that hurts school districts.
“We have to hire staff, put them in classrooms to man those classrooms, and then if a kid doesn’t come, we lose money every single day that they don’t come,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
PfISD is also facing increasing competition from charter schools, he said. Even though they're privately managed, charters are fully funded by the state since they don't have the authority to levy taxes or call bond elections.
Like Austin ISD, “we’ve been inundated ... with charter schools that just pop up right next to a [public school] and waste taxpayer money,” Killian said.
The proliferation of charter schools is also a major concern for August Plock, a social studies teacher at Pflugerville High and vice president of Pflugerville Educators Association. Plock praised Killian for his honesty about the financial pressures the district is facing. He pointed out that nearly a dozen charter schools operate within PfISD boundaries.
“Now the community public schools have less students and so we have less money coming in from the state,” he told KUT.
Plock said while no one wants to close schools, the district needs to take action — especially if it is trying to free up money to give teachers and school staff pay raises next year.
“Because if we don’t give those raises — other districts already are paying more than Pflugerville — we will lose teachers and not be able to recruit teachers," he said. “We can’t get enough teachers this year. And we’re having people come in to teach schools now who are uncertified and are really not qualified to be public school teachers in Texas.”
Pflugerville ISD still has more than 50 teacher vacancies, according to Killian.
Plock said something's got to give.
"I know parents are not going to be happy about it because it could impact their child’s school, but as a school district for us to maintain our schools and to move forward, these changes are going to have to be made,” he said. “And if it’s not this school, it’s going to be that school.”
Schools on the chopping block
Luke Ortega, a Pflugerville ISD parent, is sympathetic to the challenging position the district is in when it comes to state funding.
“The Legislature does shortchange the schools quite a bit,” he told KUT. “The way the Legislature and our state leadership is now is kind of anti-public schools."
He said he is also concerned about how supportive Republican leaders, like Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, are of charter schools and so-called "school choice."
“They kind of see charters as the answer because charters [are] corporate, and all good Republicans think that corporate America can do a better job than public entities can,” he said.
But Ortega also wants to see PfISD officials get creative with the budget and come up with alternative ways to save money. His son is in fifth grade at Pflugerville Elementary, one of the campuses that could be on the chopping block. Another son graduated from the school.
“We love the school. And, both of my kids have had great experiences there. It’s really diverse. It’s really part of the community we love here,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to fight against its closure.”
“You telling me that you need to close that campus to save money — I need to see those numbers. I need full disclosure."Rena Clegg, Pflugerville parent and former art teacher
Rena Clegg, like Ortega, knows all too well that PfISD is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to state funding. She was an art teacher for 17 years at Parmer Lane Elementary, one of the other schools that could close.
“When I became a teacher, I became political,” she said.
Clegg pointed out that Abbott signed House Bill 3, a massive school finance bill, at Parmer Lane back in 2019.
“I find it really ironic that three years ago, Gov. Abbott sat in the gymnasium at our school — at Parmer Lane — and signed a bill that he said would reform school funding,” she said. “And here we are three years later, possibly going to close that school.”
Clegg no longer teaches at Parmer Lane, but her son is a first-grader there. She said she and other parents want an idea of how much money the district expects to save by closing schools, because those figures were not part of the presentation made to the school board last week.
“You telling me that you need to close that campus to save money — I need to see those numbers. I need full disclosure. I need to see what that looks like because our community counts on this school," she said. "We love it."
Even Superintendent Killian noted that closing schools comes with its own costs, such as the need to provide more buses to get students to schools farther away. Currently, PfISD has 40 bus driver vacancies.
Clegg said she wants the district to be more transparent about the potential closures, especially after PfISD voters approved all but one school bond proposition during the November election.
“We would have liked more transparency. Not that we wouldn’t have voted for the bond, just that we would like to know all the problems that were happening,” she said.
She noted that Pflugerville and Parmer Lane elementaries are among the oldest campuses in the district and may cost more to maintain.
“It felt like if we’re a high-performing school but you want to close us because of that, then why weren’t improvements to our school included in the bond?” Clegg asked.
Both Clegg and Ortega plan to reach out to state lawmakers to advocate for more public school funding, which is a step Superintendent Killian urged parents to take. Clegg said she thought she'd be done fighting for public school funding after leaving her teaching job, but that is not in the cards now.
"I'm ready and so are the other parents at our school," she said. "We very much plan to contact legislators."
Clegg got choked up describing what it will mean for her family and the school community if Parmer Lane closes.
“I’m not working right now, but I’m up there all the time because I love the school that much,” she said. “That school is part of my family, so it would impact us a lot.”
Clegg said even though it will be “devastating” if Parmer Lane closes, she wants a solution that impacts the fewest number of students and is ultimately positive for PfISD.
Community meetings next month
Pflugerville ISD plans to hold community meetings between Jan. 9 and Jan. 20 to get feedback on the proposed closures. Killian urged families to participate.
“We would love to have ideas on how we can address this in other ways, because we’re at our wit’s end on how we’re going to fund this,” he said.
Killian said he expects district officials to have a proposal for the PfISD school board to consider and take possible action on in February.