BISD eyes new school year; Final decisions in hands of state

The timeline for Brownsville Independent School District students to return to classrooms for in-person instruction is in the hands of state officials, who have so far delayed releasing final public health guidelines to keep them and their teachers safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

A final decision on when and how students will resume instruction in classrooms rests with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who on Friday was to hold a conference call with school superintendents including Rene Gutierrez of BISD.

Following a public hearing, BISD on Thursday approved an operating budget of $558 million for the 2020-2021 school year, an employee compensation plan that includes raises for teachers, librarians and all classified employees and an academic calendar for the year that includes additional instructional days.

Gutierrez said BISD has three plans ready to roll out when the new school year begins on Aug. 17: 100% distance learning, 100% in-school instruction or a blend of the two.

“We’re waiting … to find out whether we will be able to do person-to-person instruction and how,” Gutierrez said. He added that he feels it would be better to start the year under 100% distance learning and bring students back only when it is safe to do so.

“It needs to be based on CDC guidelines and keeping in mind that the safety of students and staff is our number one priority,” he said.

Whatever action Texas takes on opening schools will come against a backdrop of worsening infection rates. On Friday, Gov. Gregg Abbott took his most drastic action yet against spread of the coronavirus when he ordered bars to close again and restaurants to return to operating at 50 percent of capacity. Earlier in the week he said schools would return to in-person classroom instruction in the fall, but left the details to Morath and the Texas Education Agency. TEA only said that final guidelines would be released soon. Another conference call is expected Monday.

Meanwhile, BISD has been conducting a survey of parents on its website asking them to state their preference for how their children will receive instruction when school restarts. Among 11,049 responses collected for 19,807 students, 25% favored 100% online learning, with the other 75% split between 100% classroom and a hybrid of online and classroom instruction.

The hiring schedule that the BISD Board of Trustees approved Thursday included 3% raises for teachers and librarians and 4% for classified and manual trades employees.

The BEST/AFT union advocated for a $2,000 raise for all certified staff that had been on the 2019-20 Teacher Compensation Schedule including all counselors, educational diagnosticians, nurses, and special education support staff such as speech licensed pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists.

The union opposed the fact that they did not get a raise at all and that they are being moved off of the Teacher Salary Schedule.

The BISD board agreed to to a $1,680 raise but directed administration to look for $1.1 million leeway in the overall budget to fund the additional $320. Additionally, the plan left employee-paid insurance costs unchanged.

The hiring schedule represents an effort begun in August through the Texas Association of School Boards to bring BISD salaries up to par with other Rio Grande Valley districts. A TASB salary survey done to start the process found BISD salaries to be about $5,000 below the Valley norm.