‘Hold harmless’ provision meant to help schools could penalize Austin ISD for taking safety precautions

​Volunteers for Austin ISD head on to knock on doors in an effort to get students back in the classroom.

School officials breathed a sigh of relief in March when TEA announced that districts would be “held harmless” when computing their state revenue for the entire school year—meaning that they would be funded on expected enrollment instead of actual under declines in enrollment during the pandemic. However, the ruling came with a significant string attached that required districts to have maintained in-person instruction in late fall. Those that broke that rule during the third six-week term would be required to increase their in-person attendance in the final six weeks of the year by 20%.

Austin ISD closed its campuses and went with remote-only instruction the week after Thanksgiving after spikes in COVID-19 cases and the likelihood that the situation could get worse after the holiday. That move to ensure safety now means Austin must increase its in-person attendance—from a snapshot average of 24%—to 44% for the final six weeks or risk losing $5 million in state funding. (Initial reports of $30 million were erroneous.) “I think it’s awful what TEA is doing,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, our union representing Austin ISD employees. “Our district was just trying to keep kids and teachers safe, and now the state wants to take away a chunk of funding for violating their byzantine rules?”

Emails from principals and the Austin ISD superintendent went out this week urging parents to send their remote-learning kids back to campus. The emails—which painted classrooms as the safest place a child could be—failed to mention the possible loss of funds, so parents were confused why the district would bother to push in-person attendance with only six weeks left. It’s unclear at this point on whether any other districts are facing similar threats of funding loss.