Public Notice: No Help for Public Schools

Why the PPP only works for charters

Public Notice: No Help for Public Schools

With Austin schools struggling to reopen and budget cuts looming at the Lege, here's a timely riddle.

Austin Achieve, a local charter school with 1,556 students and 98 teachers, got between $2 million and $5 million through a federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan (Treasury data only provides the range of its PPP loans, not the exact amount).

Austin ISD, with nearly 80,000 students and 5,535 teachers, got none.

Why? Here's the deal.

Both charters and traditional public schools receive the same amount of per-pupil state funding, which pays teachers' salaries among other things, so it's not as if federal money was needed to make up a payroll gap between the two. True, Texas charters can't issue bonds for construction, but they've been eligible for facility funding from the state since 2018 – and besides, PPP loans are supposed to prevent worker layoffs, not underwrite fancy new gyms.

But while charter schools are publicly funded, they're privately owned and operated (often beyond public oversight, as critics are quick to note). Most are incorporated as nonprofits or backed by for-profit companies, both of which are eligible to apply for PPP loans. Traditional public schools – being ­neither nonprofits nor companies – are not. That's why we won't see any PPP dollars for AISD, even though the district is paying 56 times as many classroom teachers as is Austin Achieve. Austin Achieve is hardly alone in seeking federal support. A few other local charters also got in on the PPP act, including Wayside Schools ($2 million to $5 million, 2,100 kids, 267 teachers) and NYOS ($1 million to $2 million, 665 students, 59 teachers). Estimates vary, but collectively charter schools nationwide appear to have tapped the PPP for what could be upward of a billion dollars.

Nor will Austin's traditional public schools get a boost from the $1.2 billion earmarked for Texas' K-12 campuses under the federal CARES Act. That's because state leaders opted to keep that money to reduce the state's own contribution to schools, basically backfilling the school budget hole with federal dollars so they can use that money elsewhere for noneducation purposes.

This means Texas public schools (charters, too) are on their own to cover significant extra pandemic costs – laptops, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, extra buses, wi-fi hot­spots, and other crucial items. AISD alone has already committed $13 million just for personal protective equipment needed to reopen classrooms safely this fall.

Notably missing from the list of PPP handouts are IDEA charter schools, possibly because recent financial misdeeds would have made that application a pretty hard sell. In mid-April, CEO Tom Torkelson resigned abruptly after the Houston Chronicle raised questions about IDEA's nonacademic expenses, including several million to lease and operate a private jet (later dropped), costly annual box seats for sporting events, and questionable financial dealings with some board members. Somehow, Torkelson still managed to wrangle a $900,000 exit deal even though 2018 tax documents show he was already making over $500,000 – almost $150,000 more than the highest-paid traditional public school superintendent in the state that year (in case you're wondering, that was Cy-Fair ISD, with a 2018 enrollment over three times as large as IDEA's). Torkel­son's successor says she won't seek a raise in her new role as CEO, which is hardly reassuring, but at least PPP funds won't be involved.

The CARES Act, which includes the PPP, has been a lifeline for many local nonprofits and local businesses, the Chronicle included, and we don't begrudge its use by any group who legitimately needs it. We just wish AISD and other traditional public school districts had been given the same consideration – or at least the $1.2 billion that was supposed to go to Texas schools under the act.

As it is, thousands of public schools across the state are trying their damnedest to educate over 5 million Texas students amid an unprecedented pandemic and with little meaningful support from a state that already ranks near the bottom in per-pupil funding.

Would a small financial lift to cover pandemic costs really have been too much to ask?


Fun AISD Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday night. We can't know what went on during their two-and-a-half-hour executive session, but when they came out, every single board member apologized for not calling out Jayme Mathias in the last meeting for his remarks about Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley ("Public Notice: Dr. Mathias and Mr. Hyde," Aug. 14). The day after that column appeared, Trustee LaTisha Anderson had gone public saying she "never expected this attitude and hatefulness from [Mathias] and also to disrespect an employee, especially an African American woman who is leading efforts to provide the tools and expertise to address racism in Austin ISD. Sadly, the reaction I received was one that was unapologetic."

Back to the meeting: After everyone else went, Mathias did apologize (sort of), saying he was human and available to talk to anyone with concerns, but not indicating that he really thought he'd done anything wrong...

The board went on to discuss school reopenings, as new Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde implored parents to keep their kids home for the first four weeks if at all possible, but stressed that she's "cautiously optimistic that we're going to be in a good place by Sept. 8."


Austin Creative Worker Relief Grant: The application period for this program ends at 5pm this Friday, Aug. 28. See www.austintexas.gov to apply for up to $2,000 in direct aid to offset expenses like rent, bills, and groceries.

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

charter schools, Paycheck Protection Program, PPP, Austin ISD, Austin Achieve, Tom Torkelson, AISD Board of Trustees, Jayme Mathias, Stephanie Hawley, LaTisha Anderson, Stephanie Elizalde i

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