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5 Hurdles to Crafting a School District Budget Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

As districts hobble into a new fiscal year, superintendents and chief financial officers are still struggling to figure out how (or whether) they'll open school buildings this fall and how to afford it all

The coronavirus pandemic and the recent spike in infections means districts are under increased pressure to abide by strict, ever-evolving health guidelines. But it's becoming more evident that many low-income districts will be forced to swallow sizeable budget cuts this year because of a precipitous drop in sales and income tax revenue.

It's a fiscal puzzle that's stumped even the most savvy and experienced administrators and consultants. Here are five problems that administrators are attempting to work through this summer as their fiscal years end and the clock is ticking on the start of the new school year.

Districts' staffing and schooling models are built for five-day-a-week, in-person classroom instruction. 

In-person classes are baked into school districts' DNA. The amount of money they're given by states is based on how many days students sit in front of teachers. Administrators use that money to hire enough teachers and teacher aides to keep in-person classrooms manageable.  And more than a quarter of their staff—custodians, bus drivers, recess monitors, and cafeteria workers—are paid based on how many hours they work inside the school building. 

Administrators are now being asked to upend that entire infrastructure.

A coronavirus-resistant school day, administrators say, requires plenty more staff members to reduce student crowding and keep school buildings clean. But while distance learning, the cheapest reopening option, doesn't require as many staff members, it requires more laptops and other technology tools. Both models require new, unusual costs. And that might require new funding streams or spending flexibility

Enrollment is expected to swing drastically. Districts roll their budgets over from one year to the next based on an educated guess of how many students will return in the fall. 

But this year, the coronavirus, the economic fallout, and parents' wavering feelings about students returning back to school has scrambled administrators' assumptions. 

Even in a hybrid back-to-school model, where students are learning both online and in-person, costs fluctuate based on how many students participate in in-person instruction and how many participate in distance learning.

Districts' biggest back-to-school cost will be transportation. Because health experts advise districts from crowding students on the bus, administrators say they might have to quadruple their bus routes.  That could quickly run into the millions of dollars.

In addition, with the unemployment rate being so high, some parents have moved in with other family members outside their school boundaries or, seeking employment, completely outside the district.

Administrators might not know exactly how many students they'll have this fall until the school doors open. The fewer students, the less money the district will receive from the state and the feds. 

Administrators in recent weeks have polled parents to get a better sense of whether they'll send their children back to school in person this fall.

There's no telling how long the recession will last, when a vaccine will be ready, or if there will be another spike in infections. The future during a pandemic and recession is hard to predict. But budgeting is all based on what administrators expect to happen during the school year, based on past experiences.

"It's hard to know what next month will bring, let alone six months from now," said Martin Pollio, the superintendent of Jefferson County school district in Louisville, Ky.

As the pandemic continues, administrators are now asking, how many months' worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies should we purchase? For how long should a district plan to operate distance learning programs? 

If a vaccine is ready early this fall, or if there's a spike in infections and health departments order schools shut down, administrators are afraid they'll end up sitting on millions of dollars worth of PPE they can't use. 

Another urgent concern: What will the economy do? If sales and income tax revenue continues to tank, districts can anticipate midyear budget cuts, an academically destructive and politically and emotionally fraught process. 

Administrators still don't know how much money they'll have to work with this fall. Before they cut their K-12 budgets, a large portion of the nation's state legislatures are waiting to see whether Congress will provide public schools with another pandemic-relief package.

That means it probably won't be until August—just weeks before the new school year is set to begin in most places—until districts know exactly how much money they'll have to work with this fall. Many state legislatures have established a rolling budget-making process, allowing them to reconvene throughout the fiscal year to make changes and cope with rapidly changing forecasts.

But remember: The last package passed by Congress, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, was woefully insufficient to cover districts' extraordinary COVID19-related costs. Many districts don't qualify for CARES Act money. And many states, including Georgia, Michigan, and New York have decided to fill deficits with CARES Act money, meaning, districts won't see any extra money this year.

That means districts will have to raid their savings accounts to pay for reopening costs or layoff staff. 

There's ramped up pressure from politicians and parents for districts to reopen schools; any mandates to do so will cost more money: A growing chorus of politicians has been demanding that schools reopen. That includes President Donald Trump, along with members of Congress, and mayors and city council members.

Closed schools are preventing parents from getting back to work and the economy from bouncing back, politicians argue.

Last week, California's governor signed a law that requires districts to have some form of in-person instruction this fall, unless the local health department says otherwise. (The state spared districts from major budget cuts, but gave them no extra money.)

For the many districts that have already determined they can't financially afford to reopen safely, administrators worry local, state, and/or federal politicians will turn around this month or next and force them to reopen, amounting to what they describe as an unfunded mandate. 

There are also a growing number of parents who want their restless kids back in school. And advocates say children can't academically afford to miss anymore months of in-person instruction. 

Conversely, other parents argue that the mask-wearing and social distancing requirements schools will require are a step too far. If masks are mandated, administrators will have to buy thousands more than they've currently budgeted for.

All of that adds up to even more uncertainty for those who have to put a budget together without knowing what the final bill for reopening schools will look like.

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