The Complicated Jigsaw Puzzle
Were you good at jigsaw puzzles that came with just a bunch of pieces without the picture of what your completed masterpiece should look like?
Well, then you just may be the person that school administrators across the country are looking for!
As districts reluctantly limp into a new fiscal year, school superintendents and CFOs everywhere are still trying to figure out if schools will open, what that will look like, and how they can pay for it.
Just when things seemed to be improving and looking more like we were on a path towards “normalcy,” the recent COVID-19 spikes in over half the states have sent administrators everywhere, scrambling in confusion. Districts are under increased pressure to abide by strict, ever-evolving health guidelines when they open: virtually a moving target.
To compound the problem, many low-income districts will be forced to swallow unbearably painful budget cuts this year because of the steep drop in their tax revenues. It’s a fiscal puzzle that has confounded even the brightest and most experienced administrators and consultants.
Below are five problems (read conundrums) that administrators are confronting this summer as the clock continues to tick to the beginning of a new school year.
A Flaw in Design: Schools Buildings and COVID-19
School buildings were designed to have students sit in the classrooms. Fiscal allocations from the state are based on how many days students sit in those classrooms.
These funds are used by administrators to hire enough teachers and aides to keep classrooms manageable. And more than a quarter of the support staff—custodians, bus drivers, recess monitors, and cafeteria workers—are paid according to how much time they work inside the school building.
COVID-19 is upending this entire infrastructure. To accommodate the evolving health regulations will require considerably more staff to maintain student social distancing, and keep the buildings disinfected.
Alternatively, if the students don’t return to school but continue with remote learning, the cheaper option (by reducing staff members), there are other costs such as more laptops and other technology tools. Either way, schools face new and unusual expenses that may require further funding streams or spending flexibility.
What will be the Enrollment? Your Guess or Mine?
Budget planning from year to year is based on an educated guess of how many students will return for the next year. But this year’s confusion from the recession in conjunction with many parents’ reluctance to send their children back to school has made those guesses anything but educated.
Even a hybrid back-to-school model (combining online and in-person learning) that many districts are strongly considering doesn’t offer much clarity. Costs fluctuate based on how many students learn in person as compared to how many learn online.
What’s more, the most considerable expense, transportation costs are sure to increase as a result of the health regulations preventing crowding students on buses. Some administrators estimate that they will need to quadruple their bus routes to the tune of millions of dollars.
Administrators probably won’t know how many students they’ll have this fall until the school doors open. And the fewer students, the less money the district will be appropriated from the state and federal governments.
What is the Future of the Pandemic?
Nobody knows what is going on. How long will the recession last? When will a vaccine be ready? Will there be more spikes in infections? Who can answer these questions? And yet administrators need to budget now, considering these unknowns.
“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, Kentucky.
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? How many millions of dollars of PPE should they be buying without knowing if they will need to use all of it?
And what will the economy do? If state sales and income tax revenue continue to decline, districts can certainly anticipate midyear budget cuts, which will further complicate the process.
How Much Money is Available?
Before cutting budgets, administrators want to see if Congress will provide public schools with another pandemic-relief package. But this probably won’t
be until August—just weeks before the new school year is set to begin.
But it should be remembered that the recent package passed by Congress, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, was highly insufficient to cover districts’ extraordinary COVID-19-related costs. And many districts don’t qualify for CARES Act money, which means they will need to dip into their savings to cover the shortfall.
The Mounting Pressure For How to Open the Schools
A growing cadre of politicians led by President Trump, including members of Congress, mayors, city council members, and medical health professionals, call for schools to open in the fall. They cite the increasing damage to the economy in conjunction with the growing psychological and academic toll on students.
Conversely, other parents argue that to reopen at this time is putting their children in danger, notwithstanding health regulations that will be difficult to enforce. All of this confusion leaves administrators with a difficult puzzle to put together. While they may have (most of) the pieces, they desperately need the completed picture.