This article originally appeared in the Friday July 26, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.
Administrators briefed the La Joya school board Wednesday on the proposed budget, which would boost teacher paychecks by at least $2,000 annually.
Teachers with less than five years of experience would receive a $2,000 raise, according to information reviewed by the school board on Wednesday afternoon. Teachers with between five and 10 years of experience would receive a $2,300 raise. Teachers with more than 10 years of experience would receive a $2,600 raise.
“I’m getting a lot of negative feedback from teachers,” said J.J. Luna, an American Federation of Teachers representative who attended the budget workshop. “They were expecting a lot more. At least $4,000.”
With about 1,900 teachers and about 2,300 support staff, the La Joya Independent School District is the largest employer in western Hidalgo County.
Assistant Superintendent Joel Trevinõ said the property tax rate would remain $1.311 per $100 of taxable assessed valuation. Roughly 90% of the operating budget, however, is funded by the state and federal governments.
School districts across the Rio Grande Valley budgeted raises for the 2019-2020 school year thanks to state lawmakers, who passed a major education funding bill.
Administrators, though, cautioned that La Joya faced several long-term challenges.
Enrollment peaked in the 2013-2014 school year, when La Joya had about 29,700 students, according to information reviewed by the school board. By the 2018-2019 school year, enrollment had dropped to about 28,000 students.
Treviño said the school district projects that enrollment will drop another 2.75% next school year.
With more than a dozen school districts in Hidalgo County, students have plenty of options.
From 2017 to 2019, about 400 students left La Joya for the Mission Consolidated Independent School District, according to information reviewed by the school board. About 220 left for IDEA Public Schools.
La Joya also struggled to maintain a healthy fund balance.
From 2011 to 2016, the district maintained a fund balance of more than $110 million, according to information reviewed by the school board. The fund balance dropped to about $93 million in 2017 and plummeted to about $73 million in 2018.
“Most of the decrease was due to completion of the La Joya ISD Sports and Learning Complex, near completion of the District’s LED Lighting Project and other construction/renovation projects which were finalized,” according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report approved by the board in January.
The fund balance is projected to hit $65 million in 2019.
As a result, Moody’s Investor Service assigned a negative outlook to La Joya’s debt.
“The negative outlook reflects the adequate, though significantly reduced reserve position, thus providing the district with considerably less financial flexibility to fund unanticipated expenditures,” according to a June 27 news release from Moody’s, which affirmed the district’s A1 rating.
Health insurance presented administrators with another headache.
District employees who select the basic health insurance plan don’t pay a monthly premium. The proposed budget would increase the price to $40 per month.
“That’s not bad,” Luna said, adding that La Joya employees know the district provides excellent benefits. “But if the pay raise is going to be that low, then it’s going to take some of that money.”
Along with teachers, librarians and school nurses would receive pay adjustments based on how long they’ve worked for the district.
The proposed budget included two options for administrative, support and auxiliary staff compensation: a 2.5% raise or a 3% raise.
Asked by Superintendent Gisela Saenz which option the school board preferred, President Claudia Ochoa said she supported the 3% raise.
The school district will calculate the raise for administrative, support and auxiliary staff based on the salary midpoint for the position.
For example, an employee who held a position with a salary range of $20,000 to $40,000 would receive a raise based on the midpoint — $30,000. A 3 percent raise would increase the employee’s annual compensation by $900.
Employees who made $20,000 and employees who made $40,000 would receive the same $900 raise based on the midpoint for their position.
Trustee Espie Ochoa asked whether or not the district could pay slightly more to employees at the low end of the pay range and slightly less to employees at the high end.
“I would like to have seen a little bit more,” Ochoa said, adding that she would prefer higher compensation for teachers. “I’d like to see $3,000 versus $2,300 for our teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians.”
The school district fiscal year starts Sept. 1.