Budget & Finance

The Year in School Finance: 10 Stories You Should Know

By Mark Lieberman — December 29, 2022 5 min read
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School finance issues are always complex, thorny, and deeply interconnected with the day-to-day experiences students and staff are having in classrooms. This calendar year, the third marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, proved no different.

The status of the virus, the dim prospects for finding qualified employees, the divisive tenor of the national political discourse, and the perennial complications of school budgeting posed unique and pressing challenges for school administrators this year.

These struggles also highlighted longstanding inequities in funding—for instance, the federal government continues to dramatically underfund services for students with disabilities and English learners, and many state funding formulas haven’t been revised in decades to account for current conditions.

Here’s a sampling of stories from the year that illustrate the value of paying close attention to what’s happening in the world of school finance—and the urgency of addressing structural problems that hold schools and students back.

Some Teachers Are Running Out of Sick Days, and Administrators Are Hesitant to Help

Early in the pandemic, federal and state governments extended unprecedented paid leave opportunities for workers who had to miss work because of COVID. Those opportunities dried up this year, and many school districts chose not to extend them, even with the looming prospect of testing positive for COVID or being exposed to someone who had. The result: Many teachers had to drain the leave they’d accrued, or even go without pay, if they had to take too many days off due to COVID.

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Mask-Mandate Opponents Are Bombarding Districts With Insurance Requests. Here’s Why

For many districts, the year kicked off with a new and bewildering threat: School board meeting attendees requesting document after document and claiming the district was violating all sorts of rules and laws. A loose network of far-right activists spurred the nationwide campaign to drown districts in paperwork, and it worked in many places. Frivolous document requests can eat up a district’s administrative resources and distract from the important business at hand.

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‘It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can’t Ignore the Climate Crisis

Emissions and waste from schools contribute to climate change, but districts can also be part of the solution, if they’re proactive. Sustainability managers in some districts are leading the charge by implementing green energy commitments and spurring collaboration among departments. But this issue remains off the radar of many district administrators, in part because of all the immediately pressing priorities grabbing their attention. (Here’s a companion guide for district leaders.)

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4 Reasons COVID Testing Students and Teachers Is Now a Nightmare

The COVID crisis continues to pile challenges on the plates of district leaders. During the deadly Omicron surge last winter, testing became a focal point of confusion and stress, as costs and logistics proved cumbersome. Even as school-based COVID testing recedes in many areas, this article illustrates the onslaught of puzzles the pandemic has posed for school operations and budget decisions.

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The Outlook Is Bad for School Hiring This Fall

The peak of frenzied headlines about staff shortages in schools may have passed, but the perennial problem has shown few signs of receding. The vicious viral spread this fall strained many schools to the point of shutting down or switching to temporary remote learning. Substitutes are still hard to find, and many full-time employees take on extra work to cover for absent colleagues. Staffing problems aren’t universal, but they remain widespread. (Here’s a special report on staffing shortages.)

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No, You Can’t Spend COVID Money on That: A Compliance Expert Explains the Rules

District finance officers spent much of the year working their way through the complexities of federal COVID relief funds. The rules varied depending on the state, and federal guidance wasn’t always clear. Politicians and academics have criticized schools for failing to spend aggressively to help students recover from the pandemic. But the nuances laid out in this article show the metaphorical tightropes district leaders have to walk if they want to spend frugally, prudently, and boldly. (Here’s an ESSER explainer.)

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Why It’s So Hard for Schools to Spend All That COVID Relief Money

Perhaps the biggest mainstream narrative about school finance all year was, “Why are schools taking so long to spend their ESSER funds?” The answer was far more complicated than some pundits and critics were able to admit. Everything from hurdles of bureaucracy to confusion over regulations got in the way of spending the money—on top of the fact that schools face substantial pressure to invest in ways that produce positive impacts. Those kinds of decisions take time to come together.

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‘It’s Hard to See the Perks': Schools Face Tough Sell in Filling Key Jobs

Hiring bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other essential employees who make the school day run was trickier than ever this year. The pandemic exacerbated longstanding deficiencies in the working conditions of these jobs. One full-time school bus driver told Education Week that several of his colleagues were experiencing homelessness, and he had to take a second job for a while just to pay the bills. Working for a school district can be emotionally rewarding, but it’s also taxing in ways that district administrators need to keep in mind.

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How Skyrocketing Fuel Prices Are Hurting Schools

Skyrocketing gas prices were one of the big economic stories of the year, and schools weren’t immune. While many lock in fuel rates at the start of the school year, some saw substantial increases that threatened to eat up budgetary space. Bus contractors, meanwhile, found the business of operating school buses especially precarious this year.

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‘The Building Was Sick': PCBs Pose an Environmental Crisis for Schools

While the public school world has been focused on the spread of viruses like COVID-19, another public health threat is lurking in thousands of school buildings across the country. Cancer-causing chemical compounds OK?-dvcalled PCBs were used in all kinds of building materials between the 1950s and late 1970s, coinciding with a boom in school construction. Many of those buildings still likely contain PCBs, and some have already found harmful levels that prompted school building closures and other logistical headaches. Heading into 2023, school districts should take note of this looming threat and take proactive steps to test and treat the problem before it gets out of hand and drains their budgets. (Here’s the broader special report.)

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Best of 2022

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