La Joya ISD laid off 175 employees to trim budget deficit

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LA JOYA — Facing an enormous uphill battle with next year’s budget, La Joya ISD has brought down its $20 million deficit by half, but it comes at the price of 175 employees being laid off.

“The number of employees impacted is 175 and I don’t say that lightly,” Superintendent Marcey Sorensen said during Thursday’s meeting. “I say that sadly. I say that with a really heavy heart. But we knew for years and years and years and years that we were overstaffed.”

Sorensen gave a detailed PowerPoint regarding the current 2024-25 budget deficit. The presentation said that it lowered the budget deficit for next year to $10.4 million — down from a projected $20 million through different ways.

Sorensen started the presentation by giving the public a look at what could have been the potential budget shortfall if certain things were not changed.

She said the district would have been looking at a potential $55.3 million shortfall due to two reasons. The issue of years of overstaffing and having almost 540 permanent positions on the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds that are set to end in September 2024.

The district conducted a deep dive analysis into the budget, ESSER funds, full-time positions and current programs for this year’s budgeting process.

One of the outcomes was a new budget protocol with certain main points being keeping schools at the center of budgeting process, empowering principals to drive campus decisions, aligning with Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) guidelines and practices, ensuring budget transparency regarding the deficit and using an academic return on investment framework.

ESSER is an emergency funding program designed to help address education issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic that allocated approximately $190 billion in aid to states.

The district garnered a total of $228.4 million with the objective to decrease the district’s operating budget, lowering full-time equivalent positions expenses and increasing the fund balance. In the first year of ESSER funds in 2021, it had 51 positions, but mismanagement of the funds and overstaffing led to the start of the current school year having 540 positions.

The 540 budgeted positions at the start of the year had a total of $26.9 million worth of salaries that were on the temporary fund. The total number of ESSER funded positions staffed and filled were at 493.

Another part of the potential $55 million shortfall was position control clean-up listed in the presentation.

The district closed $28.4 million in overstaffed, understaffed and unallocated positions. It also allocated position numbers to individual overstaffed positions and aligned the number of work days through the compensation manual due to a variance in days for many positions with the same title and pay grade.

It also listed that new positions requests will be requested through the budget office and approved through the superintendent’s office.

A total of 528 positions were closed. About 209 closed positions came from attrition, through retirement, resignations or dismissal. Program changes or grants ending closed 124 positions and a clean-up process closed about 195 positions.

About 98 positions were staffed and filled and 47 vacant positions were closed for the next school year.

Around 395 positions were moved over to the general fund for next year. That includes 194 custodians, 62 police officers, 35 support positions, 29 groundskeepers, 25 nurses, 21 secretaries, 14.5 instructional positions and 13 security officers.

The district still needed to lay off about 175 employees due to program changes, grants ending, non-renewal of contracts and dismissals.

Other actions by the district included cutting stipends based on TASB recommendations to save $2.4 million, cutting allocated days in the compensation guide to save $650,000, eliminating instructional redundancy and reducing purchased services to save $1.6 million.

The district also increased revenue by $2.84 million through an extended 2024-25 calendar and used the remaining $2.5 million of ESSER funds for instructional materials and previously approved HVAC projects.

Overall, the district reduced $44.9 million from the potential $55.3 million to cut the total budget deficit for next year down to $10.4 million.

“There are no funds to cover the budget gap and this is where we are while caring for our employees and caring for the community,” Sorenson said during the meeting. “This is an honest budget the way I see it at this moment … while I’m sad that employees have been impacted, we are going to do absolutely everything that we can to bring back the money that we can through vacancies. I’m proud that we are at an honest place with our community in terms of our funding.”

Looking ahead, Sorensen said she wants the district to continue to align staffing allocation models and analysis of district needs and issues.

One thing she pointed out was that special education in the district was incredibly overstaffed.

“Special Education receives 100% of state and federal dollar allocation,” she said. “We had to pull $14 million out of the fund balance to just balance special education. So in all transparency, I have asked TEA to help us in terms of figuring out exactly what was burdening our special education system here in La Joya ISD.”

Sorensen said after the meeting that she believes the district is moving in the right direction.

“We know that in the past we’ve been overstaffed,” she said. “We’ve been told that repeatedly over the past decade plus, and so the board is finally moving in the right direction and the district is moving in the right direction in terms of closing those budget gaps.

“I am confident that in years to come we will be a thriving district financially. We still have work to do and we’re saddened that any employee had to be impacted but we were transparent and honest from the very beginning.”