Why superintendents shouldn’t start new programs right now

Lessons of Great Recession show districts may have to cut personnel to continue educating students
By: | April 17, 2020
Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on UnsplashPhoto by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash
Robert Morales

Robert Morales

“Don’t start any new programs” is a long-time K-12 CFO’s key piece of advice to education leaders as they develop 2020-21 school budgets during the coronavirus financial shock.

Leaders may need to make up for lost learning by extending school days and school years, and even holding a greater number of students back, says Robert Morales, the former CFO for District of Columbia Public Schools, the Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, and the Cobb and Fulton county school systems in Georgia.

“This is kind of a lost year as far as instruction,” Morales says. “Superintendents and CFOs need to be looking at what programs they really don’t need so they can redirect funds.”

While many teachers have shifted online successfully and schools have distributed computers and WiFi hotspots, there remain the problems of students who still do not have reliable internet access and of children who simply aren’t participating in remote instruction, Morales says.

More from DAK-12 leaders gaining some flexibility over budgets

Leaders may also have to drop any planned raises for teachers or other staff, considering that personnel costs account for more than 80% of most districts’ budgets, Morales says.

During the Great Recession, when Morales worked for Fulton County Schools, the district cut 1,000 positions—the bulk of which were teachers. A bright spot this time around may be that the CARES Act offers state and district officials mean flexibility than did Great Recession stimulus funding.

“What people are forced to do now is make hard decisions and it’s hard to do the right thing,” Morales says. “You don’t want people to lose their paycheck but the goal of school districts is to instruct children and making the right fiscal decision may mean letting go of staff.”

Of course, the spending outlook will vary across the country, depending on how much funding a district gets from its state and how much—including CARES Act stimulus money—comes from the federal government.

But increasing the uncertainty is that, in many states, the legislatures were working on 2020-21 budgets when they shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also, it remains unclear if schools in any state will reopen before the end of this school year.

As for the CARES act, Title I funding will go to state education department to disperse while another $3 billion will be allocated by governors as a block grant.

More from DA: How much will your state receive from the CARES Act

Morales strongly recommends that superintendents, CFOs and their teams keep meticulous spending records, as their use of CARES Act funds will surely face audits by federal and/or state watchdogs when the crisis is over.

District leaders also need to remain in close contact with state legislators of governors to help guide how education funds are spent, Morale says.

“If this is truly a lost year, it’s all going to land in the laps of superintendents,” Morales says. “They’re going to have to be very efficient with their money.”

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.