Assembling a school budget is painstaking, politically fraught work under normal circumstances—and, as the cliché goes, these are not normal times.
The last 12 months in the U.S. have seen a devastating public health crisis, a turbulent economic recession, and a severe enrollment loss. Any of these factors on their own would complicate the annual effort to determine a school district’s fiscal priorities for the next year. Taken together, they’re shining a spotlight on historic inequities in K-12 spending and unearthing daunting new challenges that schools will be facing for the foreseeable future.
School budget officials have to take those factors into account while navigating the complex priorities of their local communities and setting up their districts for long-term academic success in a world that may look very different than any they’ve previously known. In many states, existing tensions over funding policies are colliding with opportunities and challenges afforded by an unprecedented onslaught of federal funds.
Education Week interviewed five administrators who are currently shepherding the budget process for a total of eight districts of varying sizes and locales.
A few takeaways are clear: The budget challenges and dilemmas in one district might be completely unfamiliar in the next. Some districts will benefit far more than others from federal relief. A lot, from enrollment numbers to how much money state legislatures will spend on schools and even whether students will be able to learn in person next year, remains up in the air.
The unavoidable reality is that school spending during COVID-19 has increased no matter which model schools are in, said Darren Harris, who manages the budgets for three New Jersey school districts. While some have posited that virtual learning could allow districts to save on facilities’ costs, the technology investments necessary for high-quality remote experiences more than offset those savings, he said.
Bringing students back to school buildings, with fewer than half the typical number of students to a bus, and more need for custodial staff, is even pricier.
“Hybrid is certainly more expensive than virtual, and fully back in-person is even more expensive,” Harris said, though he hasn’t seen a significant difference in cost between hybrid and full-time in-person.
Here’s a look at some of the most pressing challenges and opportunities districts face.
Projecting enrollment in uncertain times
The budgeting process is in full swing for the 35,000-student Mansfield district in Texas, south of Dallas—but there are still a lot of unknowns. The district’s budget must be finalized before July, when the new fiscal year starts.
Perhaps the biggest question is how to project the district’s enrollment in future years, said Michele Trongaard, associate superintendent for business and finance. The district saw roughly 550 fewer enrolled students from last school year to the current one. That drop is less severe than in neighboring districts, but it’s still significant—the district spends roughly $9,000 per pupil, which means losing 550 students could lead the state to cut several million dollars in aid. Pre-K and kindergarten enrollment took the biggest hit, mirroring national trends.
Demographers hired by the district to craft enrollment projections have raised the possibility of steeper enrollment declines in future years as several new charter schools emerge in the area.
The stakes are high: The district is in the process of building three new schools, and efforts to address learning loss and keep students on track after the pandemic will be costly. Trongaard estimates the district needs more than $20 million for additional teachers, new buses, three additional school police officers, and a new reading academy to address learning loss. And that’s after abandoning a plan to extend the current school year by 10 days, which would have cost more than $1 million a day, or $30 per student, not counting technology, contracts, and other typical per-pupil expenses.
The state government used the district’s $3 million allotment from the first federal stimulus package funds to cover the district’s enrollment losses. “We didn’t receive additional funds, but we didn’t lose any funds—keeping districts whole by holding them harmless,” Trongaard said.
Figuring out whether the feds will reimburse this year’s costs
Another unknown factor is the amount of money the district can expect back from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which offered last year to cover 75 percent of districts’ costs for emergency protective measures. The Mansfield district kept school staff on payroll, and some tackled difficult jobs during the pandemic for premium pay, including cleaning the buildings and providing meals to students.
From what Trongaard has heard, the district may not get reimbursed for the money spent on salary bonuses for those employees.
“A lot of districts didn’t apply for very much,” she said. “We applied for above and beyond"—more than $3.5 million.
She’s not sure yet how the state will handle the second and third federal aid packages from December and last month, respectively. Her budget draft includes three different versions for best and worst-case scenarios.
“Everything seems to be priority one,” Trongaard said. “We’re going to have to weed it down.”
Knowing how much money your district will receive and need to spend
In a typical year, Liz George, business administrator for the Washington Township district in southern New Jersey, would develop a budget using the previous year’s expenses as a guide. Thanks to the pandemic, she doesn’t know how much expenses will change this fall.
Electric bills were much higher this year because schools ran ventilation systems two hours before and after buildings were occupied in an effort to mitigate COVID-19 spread. Normally, air systems would only turn on when buildings were occupied. That might not need to be the case next year, if the nation is approaching herd immunity for the coronavirus.
Similarly, the district had no choice early in the pandemic but to spend aggressively on personal protective equipment like KN-95 masks to keep staff members safe—even when the price tag was “five times what it is now,” thanks to price-gouging, George said.
Federal stimulus funds were only helpful to a point. Because those aid packages were distributed through the Title I formula, districts with a small population of high-need students saw little relief. From the December bill, for instance, George expects roughly $331,000, or roughly 0.7 percent of her district’s $45 million operating budget.
“We needed PPE, we needed cleaning supplies just like all of the other districts that were Title I,” George said.
The state offered supplementary funds to districts that needed more relief, which George welcomed. But another aspect of state funding has been more challenging. New Jersey in recent years has been incrementally adjusting its spending on districts to account for several years when it froze the state’s revised funding formula and offered the same allocation to districts year after year. That meant some districts with growing enrollment saw less than they needed on a per-pupil basis, while others with declining enrollment saw more.
Washington Township is among the districts taking a hit from that policy. Next year, it means $1 million less from the state than in 2020.
“We’ve tightened our belt on school supplies, we’ve tightened our belt on technology purchases,” George said. “We would love to have state-of-the-art classrooms. We have hardware that’s at the end of its useful life that we can’t afford to replace.”
The pandemic has, in surprising ways, helped the district cut back on certain expenses, though. During the period when teachers were working from home, fewer staff got sick and took days off, which meant less spending on substitutes. When schools reopened for full-time in-person instruction, fewer substitutes than usual were willing to step in. Teachers also aren’t traveling for professional development.
A final note of unpredictability: George thinks the pandemic might lead more people than before to head for rural areas with abundant open air like hers.
“We could have an influx of students,” George said. “We’ll have to pivot to accommodate them, if that comes to play.”
“I have a lot of optimism regarding what we’re going to be able to do and programs that we’re going to be able to implement that will directly affect our students’ lives."
Getting creative with federal funds
Learning loss has been top of mind for many school leaders this year—but not so much for Steven Johnson, who serves as superintendent of two rural North Dakota districts just south of Fargo. Lisbon Public Schools has 615 K-12 students, and the Fort Ramson district consists solely of a 23-student elementary school with three teachers.
The Lisbon district will get roughly $500 per student from the second federal stimulus, and $1,100 per student from the third. Twenty percent of that money must go toward efforts to address “learning loss.” But Johnson’s districts have been open for close to full-time in-person instruction since September, and most students are meeting grade-level expectations.
Fort Ramson in particular doesn’t have any Title I-eligible students and isn’t accustomed to receiving much from the federal government. But the state’s superintendent of public instruction vowed to give all school districts a minimum of $6,000 from its own federal relief funds in case the federal allocation for schools didn’t suffice.
“That’ll be a nice little shot in the arm for us. We’ll be able to do some of those things to help kids in reading and mathematics where we couldn’t do it before,” Johnson said.
Finding qualified teachers to fill those needs, as well as special education and career-technical education programs at the Lisbon district, may be tough given nationwide shortages, he said.
Instead, Johnson is looking to strengthen existing programs, with more money for literacy and math software, and more resources for training and professional development. He’s planning a similar boost for special education, providing more training to staff and aides on how to deal with individual students’ behavioral challenges.
The district will also have the money to add a third weekday to its existing contract with a private mental health provider that currently offers on-site services two days a week. That approach “has taken a ton of load off of our elementary and high school counselors,” Johnson said, and it’s more convenient for families than having to make a 150-mile round trip to get care for their child.
Navigating a crowded market with volatile prices and staff shortaegs
Darren Harris manages the budget for three separate districts in New Jersey. Comparing the amount of money they’ll receive in federal stimulus funds side-by-side is instructive.
Pittsgrove, with 1,800 students, received $1.1 million in federal funds from the second stimulus package, or $600 per student. Commercial Township, with 450 students including 80 percent who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, got $1.5 million from the same program, or $3,300 per student.
Even the smaller amount will be a boon to long-delayed HVAC upgrades and much-needed programs like social-emotional support and enrichment opportunities to help students acclimate to a post-pandemic world. But the challenges don’t stop there: “We’re going to have some difficulty staffing some of these programs,” Harris said. “After what all our staff had to go through this last year, they might need a break.”
Still, the summer programs will be easier to maintain in the long haul than hiring a handful of year-round teachers, whose salaries may be difficult to keep paying once the federal funds run out in a few years.
Harris has heard many districts are looking to contractors for tutoring and other temporary programs, rather than hiring full-time staffers. But therein lies one of his biggest worries: So many school districts will be looking for the same kinds of contractors that their prices will skyrocket.
Despite variations in federal spending across his three districts, Harris is excited overall about the future.
“I have a lot of optimism regarding what we’re going to be able to do and programs that we’re going to be able to implement that will directly affect our students’ lives,” he said.
Making long-term investments that pay off
The Clark County district in Nevada serves more than 300,000 students at roughly 360 schools with an operating budget of $2.5 billion, plus another $2 billion in bonds and capital projects.
For the nation’s fifth-largest district, all of the uncertainty about budgeting during this unusual year is compounded by the ongoing state legislative session, which is debating its approach to implementing a new funding model for the state’s schools. One issue at hand is whether the state will continue to supplement depleted local property tax revenues at a pre-determined level for districts that see funding losses.
“We are still trying to understand how the state will even fund us,” said Jason Goudie, the district’s chief financial officer, who is racing to get a final budget ready by June.
Another deciding factor will be the effectiveness of the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The sooner schools can be confident they’ll fully reopen safely in the fall, the more clear the enrollment picture will become, Goudie said. In the meantime, he’s working with school principals to develop staffingmodels for fully in-person, fully remote, and hybrid learning approaches that addresses concerns about ongoing costs that won’t be feasible long-term.
The extent to which remote learning persists after the pandemic could have budget ramifications as well. If a substantial number of students opt to continue learning online, Goudie could imagine cost savings if fewer schools need to be built as a result.
Goudie is feeling the pressure that comes with a federal stimulus package of a magnitude that isn’t likely to appear again for a long time. His district may end up with more than a billion dollars from the three packages combined—almost 50 percent of the district’s annual operating budget.
“This provides us an opportunity to really do some things that can change the educational system in Nevada,” he said. “That also brings about fear—let’s make sure we really do do that.”