It is a difficult time for school districts.
This was the sentiment shared by two local superintendents, Jim McClellan of Sanford-Fritch ISD and Chance Welch of Borger ISD. The two men shared about their backgrounds, along with the struggles their districts are facing, during a gathering of the Hutchinson County Retired School Personnel Association meeting Thursday.
McClellan told those in attendance he grew up in Stratford, and claims both Stratford and Dalhart as his hometowns. He graduated from high school in 1978, and came to Frank Phillips College, where he attended classes in 1978 and 1979.
He left FPC to go to Panhandle State, where he played football and did his undergraduate studies. From there, he did his graduate studies at Sul Ross State University. He did his superintendency at what is now Texas State University.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m a superintendent and I have two diplomas that say I’m a superintendent at both Southwest Texas and Texas State,” McClellan said. “I don’t know anyone else who can do that.”
He said he started in Dimmitt, and then went to Stinnett as a teacher and coach from 1983-90. From there, he went to Duncanville to coach. He said it was an eye-opening experience.
“I walked into Duncanville High School and had my very first teacher’s meeting as a teacher and coach,” he said. “There was like 1,100 teachers.”
He said on the first day of school, there were 5,000 students. While there, he had some unpleasant experiences, which made him all too eager to return to the Texas Panhandle.
McClellan said he has made his living as a principal going into schools and trying to clean them up. He credited retired Fritch superintendent Daymun White for helping him get his start in Fritch as a principal at the high school, and now as superintendent of schools.
In terms of his school district, he said his is one of the poorest in the state. Of 1,029 districts throughout the state, Fritch ranks #26 from the bottom in finances. He said he gets around $4,700 per student in his district, compared to districts nearby that are getting around $6-8,000 per student.
“I have to teach that student at the same level,” McClellan said. “Our students have to compete against those schools at the same level, and have to apply for scholarships at colleges at the same level, and we’re doing it with half the amount of money. That’s not patting me on the back. That’s patting our staff on the back and our teachers at Fritch. We do the best we can with what we have.”
He said he operates on about a six and a half million dollar budget, and the district is trying to go into the year thinking it could lose $450,000 to $700,000 in a budget where it is already poor.
He said the district does have some attrition with retirees. The district is not encouraging employees to retire, but with those that have, those positions can be absorbed. With teachers leaving to change jobs, those positions can also be absorbed.
“Attrition is what we’re going to look at first, absorption is what we’re going to look at second, and the worst-case scenario is a reduction in force,” McClellan said.
He said he never has really been associated with firing, aside from not renewing a couple of contracts. However, he is faced with the possibility of letting good staff go, which he said is a sad situation.
“We’re cutting our budgets anywhere from seven to 10 percent all the way across the board, including athletics,” McClellan said. “That’s kind of a long story short.”
On the positive side, he said his students and teachers are faithful to come to school every day. SFISD is the District 1-2A Academic Champions for the first time in school history, beating such schools as Bushland, Childress, and River Road.
Welch told the audience he is a third-generation educator who has worked at Amarillo High School and Canyon High School. He also has worked for Meridian ISD and most recently at Graford ISD as superintendent before coming to Borger.
He said from his past coaching experiences, he saw how hard the Borger kids worked and how strong their character was, and that was something that always stuck with him.
“I felt like if I came to Borger, the students will rise to high expectations, and they are doing that already,” Welch said.
He also said Borger was the district champions in UIL and the district’s students are doing well in testing, according to preliminary TAKS scores that have been reported.
In terms of budget issues for the district, Welch said it has already faced a $550,000 budget deficit this school year and cutbacks have already been a part of the landscape.
“Approximately 50 percent of the districts in the state have budget deficits, so that’s not something that’s unique to Borger,” Welch said. “$550,000 is a significant amount to cut when you’re trying to increase expectations at the same time.”
He said the district has looked at personnel and attrition. About 79 percent of the Borger budget is based on personnel costs. The district has gotten the deficit down to around $100,000. He said this is the biggest challenge the district continues to face.
Next year, just to meet federal accountability standards, the district will have to meet an overall 87 percent passing rate among its students. Welch said with all of the cuts and fewer funds coming in, it seems the standards continue to get higher.
He said in the midst of the current legislative session going on in Austin, the current Senate hybrid model projects a cut to the district for next year of a little over $317,000. He said he knows that sounds like a lot of money, but he actually sees them as heroes right now, because the best number out of the Texas House of Representatives is around $1.4 million.
Welch said with a cut of just around $300,000, the district would still be able to continue a lot of its basic programs. However, the largest cut would really cause the district to struggle.
He has met with all of the campuses and several organizations, and their goal is to see that every employee who wishes to continue working in the district will have a job. He said there is a possibility that people may get moved around, but the district is trying to do all it can to preserve its basic programs.
The district does have a hiring freeze where it is essential, but also tries to hire teachers and administration where needed. Welch said he has a lot of great teachers that the district needs and that he doesn’t want to lose.
“It’s an uncertain time. Standards are constantly going up, and we’re seeing fewer funds to meet those standards,” he said. “It’s a stressful situation to be in.”
He said the district is working to be open with its staff as to what’s going on, and wants to continue to see the district succeed and excel.
“We’re doing a lot of things well, and we want to hold onto that,” Welch said. “We have a great academic program, a great all-around program in Borger, and we’re fighting to keep it as best we can.”