Three rounds of federal stimulus and an unexpected windfall in state budgets has helped many school districts avoid the terrible fate they predicted when the COVID-19 pandemic started hammering them in last March.
But a survey by EdWeek Research Center of school and district leaders reveals concerns about the costly educational hurdles that lie ahead, concerns about federal dollars running out in a few years, and uncertainty over serious financial problems that persist in many places.
In the national survey last month, most school and district administrators said federal relief funding was at least enough to cover pandemic-related expenses and make up for funding shortfalls in the country. State and local.
But more than half of survey respondents said it was at least fairly likely that their schools would lose their block funding over the next 10 years due to declining enrollment; 22% said it was very likely.
This phenomenon will hit differently from district to district and will depend on unpredictable factors such as population growth and migration, as well as the expansion of charter, private and homeschool options.
“It’s not a solution,” said Wayne Tilley, business manager and treasurer for the Unadilla Valley district in upstate New York, of the district’s federal revival, which totaled 4. , $ 4 million, or approximately $ 5,366 per student, since March 2020. âIt is a great help for the historic times that we have just passed through. But this is not a solution for a sustainable school in five or ten years. It would be foolish to think that was the case.
Many districts are now starting to look past short-term questions of how to reopen school buildings and maintain education as the spread of the COVID-19 community is high. The survey found that meeting the learning and mental health needs of students, preparing teachers for more flexible pedagogical approaches and ensuring that buildings are safe and secure are among the most pressing budget priorities.
“We need to consider what education for children should look like when we get back to normal before the pandemic?” said Don Kennedy, financial and administrative director of the Charleston, SC school district.
Some schools in the Kennedy School District have been underperforming over the past five years and need more new resources than others, he said. “Do we want to rebuild where we were then exactly? Some of our programs, we would say no. “
Districts get creative to avoid running out of money
For many districts, the federal relief represents a significant increase in the money generally available to them. Their current budget planning reflects this reality – 47 percent of administrators who responded to the survey said their district’s per-student spending next year would exceed this year’s spending. Another 35 percent said their spending will stay the same from this year to next year.
The survey also found that 42% of school and district leaders said their districts increased spending between the 2019-2020 school year – when the pandemic first interrupted schooling – and the one that was ending now, and 30% spent the same two years.
The Staunton School District in Virginia, for example, which has an annual budget of $ 38 million, got $ 600,000 from the CARES Act of March 2020, $ 2.8 million from the December 2020 stimulus, and $ 6.2 million dollars from the US bailout this year.
The neighborhood has 2,500 students, all eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Brad Wegner, district budget manager, is looking to prioritize one-off purchases with federal assistance, such as school buses, vehicles for transporting students with disabilities, and building upgrades.
These measures are long overdue, Wegner said. But they won’t be easy to fund, even with a bigger wallet than usual.
“These [federal stimulus] the funds are to be spent by 2024, and given the skyrocketing costs of building materials, as well as the demand for contractor services, this will be a problematic issue for us, âWegner said.
He’s looking to see if the district can use federal money for preliminary work, like engineering studies and site assessments, and then later finds other sources of funding for the actual construction.
New York’s Unadilla Valley District plans to use federal money to replace some air handling units, upgrade computers, expand professional development opportunities for teachers, and purchase a reading intervention program on five years. âFor us, normally it would be, ‘We can’t do this, we don’t have a way to fund this,’â Tilley said.
Another goal for schools in the coming months will be to help students emerge from the pandemic, both academically and emotionally. In many places that means expanding summer schools and adding counselors, social workers and mental health programs.
Many districts are tempted to hire new workers and pay their current employees better. When asked to choose three areas that most need additional funding, 42% of survey respondents chose salaries for teachers and certified staff, more than any other survey option.
But there’s a catch: When federal money runs out, it can be difficult to keep newly hired employees on the payroll.
Districts may need to be creative. In Staunton, rather than calling in substitute teachers as needed through the district’s third-party provider, the district will contract with two or three substitutes to work in the school year-round.
âIt gives us flexibility where these substitutes can act as substitutes or perhaps become a teaching assistant and support our teachers,â Wegner said.
Our superintendent is probably 10 years old this year, trying to balance what he thought was a financial cliff and take care of people in the community.
Amanda McAdams, Assistant Superintendent and Director of Elementary Education, Lincoln County School District # 2
Despite the flood of federal liquidity, funding pressures remain
The amount of money districts receive from the federal government, the extent to which it will be transformative, and the flexibility they will have to spend it vary widely from state to state and district to district.
Sixty-one percent of administrators who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said persuading elected officials to adequately fund schools is a major challenge. In states like Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming, districts are worried about rumors that state lawmakers will cut investment in K-12 schools and then ask districts to use federal dollars to fill the gap. to win.
For the Lincoln County rural school district in Wyoming, the move would be devastating, said Amanda McAdams, assistant superintendent and director of elementary education. The district lost 200 of its 3,000 homeschooling students during the pandemic. She is confident that at least 100 will return, but many will require significant tutoring and educational efforts to academically catch up with their peers.
The district does not generate much local income, which means it is particularly vulnerable to the volatility of state revenue sources. Earlier in the pandemic, the district had already had to fire science specialists and a high school math teacher, and cut the working hours of art, music and physical education teachers.
âOur superintendent is probably 10 years old this year, trying to balance what he thought was a financial cliff and take care of people in the community,â McAdams said.
Losing federal funds would mean “the status quo for the district, and that will limit us from any creative or cool ideas to implement,” she said.
Other districts feel envious when they compare their federal dollars to those of their neighbors.
To focus financial support on students who are socio-economically vulnerable, the three sets of stimulus funds have been disbursed to schools based on the proportion of Federal Title I aid they typically receive. But some administrators want the funds to be distributed per student. Many expenses during the pandemic, they say, were also necessary for all students, regardless of their background or family situation.
Just over a quarter of survey respondents said federal relief funds were somewhat or completely insufficient to overcome state and local budget deficits during the pandemic, and 19% said aid federal government was somewhat or completely inadequate to cover the additional expenses related to COVID-19. .
âI understand the need to take care of the low income areas of our state and our country,â said Justin Downes, Milbank District Superintendent in South Dakota. “I just think these scales are quite heavily biased, with districts much smaller than mine receiving twice as much aid.”
Thanks to the stress of the pandemic, the future is uncertain
While the stimulus is the largest federal investment in K-12 education in U.S. history, it alone cannot erase the myriad flaws and intricacies of labyrinthine funding systems. school of the country.
As many districts face declining enrollment in the coming years, the amount of money they will receive from state and local governments could drop precipitously.
“We are looking to be potentially shot dead by around 30 children [next year]. Multiply that by $ 6,000 per kid, all of a sudden we have a lot less budget, âDownes said. “We try to provide extracurricular classes and electives, but that’s really what ends up hurting.”
Another potential slice of federal funds is on the horizon, with President Joe Biden offering $ 50 million in grants and $ 50 million in bonds for K-12 schools to invest in their building infrastructure . The investment is long overdue, supporters say, but the proposal has yet to be passed by Congress.
District leaders say they’re keeping an eye out for the possibility of additional funding, but their attitude to the proposal reflects a key lesson from the pandemic: don’t count on what you don’t have yet .
âWe can’t sit back and assume that after neglecting our buildings, someone is going to fly in with the money when we need it,â said Roger Dickson, acting director of business services. for the District of Shorewood in Wisconsin. “We have to manage the overall budget, so we take care of our facilities as well as educational needs.”