As rain drizzles down on a gloomy November afternoon, Irene Torres keeps dry under an awning in her friend’s driveway. School has just let out at Treasure Forest Elementary, and she’s waiting for her daughter, Jodie Reans, to trot across the street so they can walk home together.
Torres’ after-school routine is a familiar one that has spanned decades. Ten-year-old Jodie has attended Treasure Forest since first grade, and her older sister, now 23, also attended the school for her elementary years.
The campus has been the backbone of both Torres’ family and their tight-knit west Houston neighborhood, where another parent often watches Jodie and other children after school.
“If someone sees that the parent is running late for work … they say, ‘Leave them here. I can make sure they get inside,’” Torres said in Spanish.
But now, the campus, which serves a population that’s 90 percent Hispanic and 97 percent economically disadvantaged, is one of several threatened with closure as Spring Branch Independent School District leaders search for $35 million in budget cuts.
Spring Branch’s board and superintendent have been vocal in criticizing the state Legislature’s failure to designate more funding for public schools. The district’s leaders say they can no longer wait to cut costs. In recent weeks, they’ve unveiled the first two phases of budget cuts and approved several facets of them.
While many community members recognize the board’s hands seem to be tied without more state funding, they also fear the underserved portion of a long-divided community will bear the brunt of the changes. All but one of the schools slated for closure in the first and second phase of cuts — Treasure Forest, the Panda Path School, KIPP Courage at Landrum Middle School, YES Prep Northbrook Middle School and YES Prep Northbrook High School — serve populations over 90 percent Hispanic and 80 percent economically disadvantaged.
“It hurts us so much that they are trying to close the school,” Torres said. “It hurts my Hispanic people.”
Proposed Spring Branch ISD budget cuts so far:
Phase one cuts, effective 2024-25 school year:
- Close Treasure Forest Elementary and Panda Path School – no action taken
- Adjust Pre-Kindergarten boundaries – no action taken
- Pause bond programs, impacting the Sherwood, Spring Shadows, Thornwood and Terrace elementaries replacement projects – approved
- Increase the high school student-to-teacher staffing ratio – approved
- Align all high schools on a seven-period schedule – approved
- Increase Pre-K tuition – approved
Phase two cuts, effective 2024-25 school year:
- Dissolve SKY (charter schools) partnership – no action taken
- Restructure SPIRAL program to be delivered at home elementary campuses, rather than Bendwood Elementary – no action taken
Generations of inequity
The district’s plans to cut the budget and close several schools has brought a long-standing divide in Spring Branch into full view.
“There has been that feeling of ‘less than’ and not feeling seen or represented or understood for generations,” said Spring Branch graduate and parent Diana Alexander.
Several decades ago, a now-defunct railroad sat parallel to Interstate 10, which runs straight through the district.
Alexander said she “quite literally grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.” The inequities between the communities on the north and south side were palpable when she was growing up, and they remain obvious decades later, she said.
Still today, the way I-10 carves the district is glaringly obvious to residents and those who pass through the communities. On the north side, home to a large Latino and Asian population, the road is lined with strip malls and shopping centers, the signs for which are written in several languages. After passing under the interstate to the south side, the scenery quickly turns into upscale, tree-lined subdivisions.
The difference in the schools today is still unmistakable, Alexander said — facilities on the north side are poorly maintained, while the south side boasts updated “boutique schools.” All but one of the schools threatened by the board’s cuts to date are located on the north side, leaving some to feel like the district isn’t being equitable in their cost-saving measures.
“I don’t feel like the school district is looking at equity when they’re making these decisions,” Alexander said. “The district is not being honest and not doing their due diligence and researching the true impact of what a closure would do for those communities.”
Superintendent Jennifer Blaine has said that both the cuts and the order they are announced have been carefully planned with those impacted in mind.
“It was not just happenstance, or we just picked five things and put them in phase one,” Blaine said. “We can argue this any way you want to or debate it, but we have to find $35 million dollars, and it’s my responsibility not to wait until the last minute to figure out where it’s coming from.”
Out of options
Many district leaders across the state have voiced frustrations as lawmakers debate private school vouchers and public school funding in special sessions, but few have been as vocal as Spring Branch in its extremely public case for more funding.
The district has coined its own hashtag, “#FullyFundSBISD.” Leaders formed a “school finance advocacy team” of parents and community members to advocate on behalf of the district for more funding. Blaine regularly sends messages to families requesting they join the district’s advocacy efforts — the subject lines reading, “IMMEDIATE ADVOCACY REQUEST” and “Your Advocacy is Needed TODAY.” In September, the district took a stance against the Legislature by flying a “Come and Take It” flag and vowing not to pay millions of dollars in recapture, or property tax revenue from “property-rich” districts that the state uses to fund other districts.
Now, faced with a $35 million budget shortfall, the board firmly insists it has exhausted its efforts for more funding and can’t wait any longer to make cuts. As it receives backlash from the community, board members argue the fault for the looming cuts lies with the state government, not themselves.
“When we think about where to place the blame on very difficult budget conversations that nobody wants to have, it shouldn’t be with the seven people sitting here, and quite frankly it shouldn’t be me either,” Blaine said at a recent board meeting. “You should be talking to our governor and state leaders about the state of education and their unwillingness to fund it.”
Parent Michelle Coffey said the district is likely frustrated that the outrage surrounding budget cuts is coming now, as opposed to when board members were asking for advocacy from families months ago.
“But I think somehow it just didn’t feel real, understandably, until they started putting out agendas,” Coffey said. “But anything that affects schools on the north side, you’re dealing with a population that English may not be their first language. They may not have the level of access to technology. … Those families are very ill-prepared to even be able to respond if they wanted to.”
Path of least resistance
Christopher Melendez, a student at Spring Woods High School on the north side of the district, knows that any advocacy for his part of the community has to come from students.
Parents at north side schools are worried about putting food on the table, Melendez said, so showing up to protests at a board meeting is not as feasible for them. At a Nov. 6 meeting, the board postponed the vote to close Treasure Forest and Panda Path after many community members blasted them for not holding a meeting at the campuses, where it would be easier for affected families to attend.
However, a meeting on Monday drew hundreds in protest of phase-two cuts, which would impact the district’s charter schools on the north side and Bendwood Elementary School, a south side campus that houses a gifted and talented program. The meeting was promptly shut down for safety reasons as hundreds packed the boardroom to speak in opposition.
Many in the community remain conflicted. Some harbor feelings of disdain for a board they feel has taken the path of least resistance by impacting underserved communities more immediately with their cuts, while still recognizing the problems would be solved by more public school funding allocated by the state.
However, Blaine has said that every part of the district will feel the impacts by the time the cuts are fully unveiled.
“The true enemy here is the state,” Alexander said. “We’ve been trying to place Band-Aids and trying to do workarounds, and I understand that the district is at the end of their rope. … Now, the reality is, I know that there are going to have to be cuts. And I would hate to think that closing a school is first on their list.”
Wishing for transparency
To date, the board has unveiled two phases of budget cuts, though it has warned community members it’s only the beginning. As community members push back against the board’s moves, they urge board members to unveil their full plan before approving any further measures.
However, the board argues it cannot fully lay out the budget cut plans at once, due to the scope of who is impacted.
“You have to be thoughtful when you start talking about cutting people’s jobs,” Blaine said. “That’s the bottom line. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Coffey said it feels like there’s no transparency happening as the board moves forward, leaving families in the district on edge as they wait for their child to be impacted.
“Where can we make bigger savings and not lose the heart of this public school system?” Coffey said. “We’re just not getting that level of transparency. We’re not seeing the whole plan. It just feels like we’re just gonna start setting fire to things and see if we eventually make it.”
Staff writer Angelica Perez contributed to this story.