‘We’re All In It Together’: Community Fights For School Funding

By Blair Waltman-Alexin | Friday, May 12th 2023

“Hi, I’m Suzy Moore, and I’m here with Parmer Lane Elementary, and we’re here to ask, please fund our public schools.”

That was the message Moore repeated as she and other parents trekked through the heart of the Texas Capitol. She’d advocated for bills in the past, but never to this extent.

“This, having it hit so close to home with our school facing closure, activated me and so many people in our community,” Moore says. “There’s a lot of folks who have done a lot of work to rally everyone.”

Moore is just one of many Pflugerville ISD community members who are pushing for increased public school funding from the state. They’re hoping the funds can help pull the district out of a budget shortfall and stave off potential school closures. For many, this is their first time to contact lawmakers. Others are focusing their efforts on local elections. But they’re part of a growing number of parents across the state advocating for a change in school funding.

“Now we’re all in it together to go lobby at the state,” Moore says.

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The south steps of the Texas state capitol. Several bills have advanced that would increase school funding, but not to the level many advocates have been pushing for.

PfISD is facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall brought on by a combination of issues. Enrollment and attendance have dropped in the wake of the pandemic. New charter schools in the area are also cutting into attendance numbers, according to school officials. The district’s payment to the recapture system has increased, from an estimated $12 million to roughly $20 million. And inflation has impacted the district’s bottom line. The district considered closing schools before setting aside those plans in February. But PfISD Superintendent Doug Killian says the district may still have to shutter campuses.

“Sad to say, yes, it’s back on the table,” Killian says. “If the legislature doesn't help us out with as much money as we need, or we magically get a lot more students to make our buildings more efficient, it’s something this board will have to look at in January.”

The state legislature is considering several bills that would increase school funding, but none reach the level sought by many advocates. House Bill 100 would increase the basic per student allotment by $140 per student over the next two years. It would also change the funding model to pay schools based on enrollment rather than attendance for certain groups. It’s a change many educators have been asking for, including Pflugerville. But it may not be enough to balance out the district’s budget.

“We need a $900 increase in the basic allotment just to keep up with where the funding was in 2019,” Killian says. “That's not in any bill that I've seen out there that's moving.”

Many PfISD parents and staff weren’t optimistic that funding would increase this year. Elena Bessire is a dual language kindergarten teacher with Pflugerville ISD. This spring she has called lawmakers and left public testimony on several bills. But she didn’t think they’d see a massive influx of dollars.

“My hope is that we can eventually get there,” Bessire says. “I don’t know that it’ll be this legislative session though.”

Despite that, she says fighting for a cause has helped her find her voice as a citizen.

“It’s made me see that my activist spirit is very strong in this area,” Bessire says. “So I’m going to utilize it.”

Others have grown into community organizer roles. Parents from across the district connected in the face of school closures, and they’ve stayed connected as they push for public education funding. Facebook pages and group chats for closure updates have evolved into pages where members update each other on different bills. Parents like Moore text each other with information about which lawmakers to contact about certain pieces of legislation.

“Everybody is following these different advocacy groups, and we’re sharing with each other,” Moore says. “That’s where people are sharing now, ‘hey, this voucher thing is going through, call so-and-so and say no.’”

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Suzy Moore (right) visits lawmakers’ offices at the state Capitol as part of an outreach effort organized by local nonpartisan advocacy group Just Fund It. Many organizations say they’re seeing more community members advocate for school funding.

They’ve even organized advocacy training for community members. The Parmer Lane Elementary Parent Teacher Organization hosted an online training event with Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonpartisan public education advocacy group, to show interested parents how advocating at the capitol works. But Pflugerville isn’t the only community to reach out to the organization. Will Holleman is the senior director of government relations for RYHT. He says that not only are there more parents and teachers from across the state advocating for public education funding, they also bring a lot of knowledge from previous budget battles.

“"For a lot of people it's become like muscle memory,” Holleman says. “They've really learned the inside baseball terms."

One of the parents who have learned the ins and outs of school financing is Laura Yeager. She co-founded Just Fund It, a grassroots public education funding organization, after a budget crisis in Austin ISD several years ago nearly shuttered her daughter’s school. She says it’s crucial for lawmakers to hear from parents and teachers.

“I think a lot of times elected officials get a lot of pressure from groups either that donate to them or that want to see certain outcomes,” Yeager says. “But really they work for the people and people need to come and advocate.”

But it can be difficult to do that in person, especially for teachers like Bessire.

“It’s hard for a lot of us to get down to the capitol because we’d have to take off a day of work,” Bessire says. “You got to keep engaged as best you can.”

Educators aren’t the only ones unable to go to the Capitol. Rocio Luper is the Parent Teacher Organization president for Pflugerville Elementary. She says for many parents, it’s not as simple as taking a day off of work.

“If they take the day off, they might not be paid that day,” Luper says. “So I’m very thankful for those parents who are able to go and advocate, but not everybody can do it.”

Luper says there was a lot of unease and concern about Pflugerville Elementary potentially closing. Many parents of dual language students wanted to speak out against the potential closures. But they were concerned about their testimony being translated properly, or shining a light on families’ residential status. Luper encouraged parents to speak up for their school.

“I told them … it is your right to fight for your schools,” Luper says. “We’re telling the parents to vote. …if they cannot vote, it doesn’t matter, because they need to communicate. They have children attending this district, probably children born in America, so they need their parents to advocate for them.”

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Luper (center) at a PfISD Boart of Trustees meeting in February. Luper has encouraged parents to speak up about school closures.

Some parents are focusing their efforts closer to home. Amy Mackenzie has a 10-year-old son who attends Mott Elementary in Pflugerville ISD. In the wake of the pandemic, she wanted to know what new school board members would do to improve communication with parents. So she and her neighbor organized an online debate between the candidates for the 2022 election. She says without a change in leadership, she doesn’t believe policy will change much at the state level.

“We don’t have a lot of control over what happens at the state level,” Mackenzie says. “I just feel like there’s an opportunity to have more of an impact at the local level.”

Whether in their backyard or at the state Capitol, school officials are seeing more parents than ever engaged in the budget battle.

“We've had a lot of requests for, ‘hey, how do I do that? How do I respond to my legislator, or get them to know where my stance is?’,” Killian says. “This is 20 years now as a superintendent. So this is probably been the best year I've seen for that.”

Many PfISD community members believe that even with all the calls and emails and testimonies, public education funding would probably still fall short of their goal. But for some parents, like Moore, it’s been a chance to make their voice heard.

“The feeling of helplessness … is awful,” Moore says. “So being able to take action, to call legislators, and do those things … it alleviates that feeling a little bit.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Amy Mackenzie's son attends Pflugerville Elementary. He attends Mott Elementary in Pflugerville ISD. *

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