K-12 leaders gaining some flexibility over budgets

Districts saving funds on transportation and facilities during closure, but many also continue to pay staff
By: | April 9, 2020
Montgomery County Public Schools students wait for meals in the Virginia district where leaders say they will see a budget surplus from the months schools have been closed.Montgomery County Public Schools students wait for meals in the Virginia district where leaders say they will see a budget surplus from the months schools have been closed.

Superintendents in some states can carry school budget surpluses over to the next school year or shift unspent education funding dollars among different accounts.

And state and federal waivers are giving districts yet more flexibility over how they will manage funds for remediation, professional development, special education and other priorities heading into the 2020-2021 school year.

In Connecticut, coronavirus school closures have left Cheshire Public Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Solan with a budget surplus—some of which he wished he was spending on students.

His district has saved a substantial amount of funds by not hiring substitutes or paying overtime. Transportation spending has fallen due to discontinued bus routes and the cancellations of sporting events, arts performances and other extracurricular activities, Solan says.

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“Those activities are places where we’d prefer to spend the money and we’re nervous we’re not going to have the opportunity to do so,” Solan says. “Those things have such a significant impact on students’ lives.”

Staff travel, such as when members of the leadership team attend summer conferences, is not a significant expense for the district, Solan added.

And while the district may lose about $30,000 in revenue from tuition-driven preschool programs, Solan can carry 2% of his budget, or about $1.5 million, over to the 2020-21 school year.

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“There’s going to be a fair amount of expenditure with regress and recoupment support for identified students, particularly students with significant special education needs,” he says. “If we’re not spending it today on these services, we know we’ll need to spend it tomorrow on those services.”

Surplus school funding will help students catch up

Leaders in Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia are seeing significant savings across the board due to greatly reduced expenditures on fuel, professional development, utilities and building maintenance.

The district has allotted all of its teachers 15 extra professional development hours to further develop online teaching skills, Superintendent Mark Miear says.

Going forward, the district intends to work with its county board of supervisors to carry the surplus over to the 2020-21 school year to fund remediation and address other challenges that arise in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re continuing with online instruction and covering new material,” Miear says. “But we have a realization that next school year, we’ll have more kids who are not at the same level that we’ve been used to in previous years.”

Cash reserves crucial during coronavirus closures

Not all districts are seeing a surplus for 2019-20.

In Colorado, Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass expects to fall about $10 million behind during the coronavirus closures. The large system outside Denver has spent less on fuel, but those savings are outweighed by several expenses, including the district’s decision to continue to pay all of its staff.

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Some personnel are being paid time-and-a-half for cleaning buildings and distributing meals. While the district is continuing to serve free meals, it is also not collecting any revenues from students who pay for lunches, Glass says.

Jeffco has also lost funds from tuition-based preschool and special education programs that have been shut down.

“Our district has built up a cash reserve so we’ll be able to handle a short-term disruption into next school year,” Glass says. “If this turns into a global recession like we had in 2008-09, there won’t be anybody who can withstand it.”

School funding to replace technology

In New Hampshire, SAU 67 (the Bow and Dunbarton School Districts) is also continuing to pay teachers, custodians, bus drivers and other employees during school closures, Superintendent Dean S. T. Cascadden says.

“For example with bus drivers—we can barely get bus drivers as it is. If we take care of people during this time they’re likely to come back and drive for us in future years.”

Administrators and the school board are now considering paying spring sports coaches to conduct remote training with student athletes. These personnel costs have outweighed savings from things such as reduced utility bills on closed school buildings. The district is also anticipating some increased expenses from online learning, Cascadden says.

“We sent a ton of material out the door—Chromebooks, technology, textbooks—and we don’t expect all of it to come back in usable conditions, but we’re not going to hold individual families accountable for replacements.”

Summer school forecast

In the Seattle area, the financial impacts of the country’s initial coronavirus outbreak were severe enough that some officials have withheld property tax payments to school districts until June.

That accounts for about 25% of the funding for the Northshore School District, which covers communities in two counties, Superintendent Michelle Reid says.

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“We have a fund balance so we’ll make it through that,” Reid says. “But we’re also concerned about state revenue, from sales tax and property tax—the things that fund schools—because the current business outlook is somewhat bleak.”

Reid is hoping to get guidance soon from the U.S. Department of Education about whether there will be flexibility in this school year’s Title I and Title II funding so her administrators can begin planning for summer school.

“We would appreciate that guidance sooner or rather than later,” Reid says. “It would be a smart nimble move the Department of Education could make now. It wouldn’t cost them anything, and we could move ahead with planning.”

What will 2020-21 budgets look like

Superintendents’ forecasts for 2020-21 school budgets vary by state. Here’s a quick rundown:

Jason Glass, Jeffco Public Schools: District leaders are watching Colorado’s state legislature, which is not in session but has been revising its estimates of funding for next school year.

Jeffrey Solan, Cheshire Public Schools: Because Connecticut’s state funding is set in two-year cycles, Solan says he’s more concerned about revenue decreases in the 2021-2022 school year.

New Hampshire
Dean S. T. Cascadden, SAU 67: New Hampshire does not allow districts to carry over surplus yet the district expects it will have to fund remediation for students who have lost ground academically during school closures.
“We’re starting to talk about where kids are going to come in next year, because some may not come back at their normal grade level,” Cascadden says. “Our teachers will be gung-ho to teach 5th grade but find that not all students in their classes have reached 5th grade.”

Mark Miear, Montgomery County Public Schools: Will work with its county board of supervisors to carry its surplus over to the 2020-21 school year to fund remediation and address issues. The district is not anticipating major adjustments to next school year’s budget.

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

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