School budget planning this summer is like trying to hit a moving target in the dark
A full State School Fund promised by Oregon leaders offers the possibility of districts’ maintaining current service levels – such as they can be during the coronavirus pandemic.
This has been a difficult summer for school leaders. Nobody knows what this school year will look like or what it will cost, and districts are still waiting to find out how much money they will have to spend from Oregon and the federal government.
“I’ve been in school finance for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen something like this,” said Angie Peterman, Oregon Association of School Business Officials executive director.
A proposal from the Joint Ways and Means Committee co-chairs released Thursday would give schools a full State School Fund and High School Success Fund with one-third of the projected Student Investment Account grants in the Student Success Act.
The proposal approaches what school business officials say they need to prevent staff and program cuts, even with the more expensive hybrid education model most schools are considering.
The Hillsboro School District expects to pay between $900 and $1,000 more per student for hybrid learning, according to Chief Financial Officer Michelle Morrison. Either all distance learning or all in-person classes would be less expensive. Morrison leads the OASBO State School Fund Committee.
Big costs include adding staff for health and safety requirements, cleaning facilities, improving touch points, and providing personal protective equipment for staff and students. The district also must adapt spaces such as cafeterias and gyms to be used as learning spaces.
With physical distancing reducing bus capacities, Hillsboro is considering paying parents to bring students to school, Morrison said.
The staffing questions can be especially complicated. For instance, Hillsboro is considering smaller in-person classes for K-2, with about 20 students per class. That would require fewer educational assistants and more teachers. But shifting teachers to the lower grades would increase class sizes in higher grades, calling for more educational assistants there.
The Legislature is expected to rebalance the state budget during an early August special session. Plans to protect the State School Fund include tapping $400 million of the Education Stability Fund, about half its balance.
“If we are going to reopen schools, we need assurances those resources are going to be there,” Morrison said. “It’s terrifyingly late for staffing.”
The State School Fund is the biggest piece, but the district also needs full High School Success Funds and 63% of its originally projected Student Success Act grant to maintain its programs, Morrison said. The state’s May economic forecast pegged the corporate activities tax in the act as raising 63% of original estimates.
Hillsboro hopes to get some crisis funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Morrison said, and the district expects $2.7 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
“It’s going to soften the landing a little bit,” she said. It is still unclear how much of that CARES money must be shared with private schools.
Hillsboro School Board Chair Erika Lopez said the district has reached out to community and business partners to help support the schools and find reopening solutions.
“This issue about how do we come back to education is not just to be left to schools,” she said. “It’s a community issue.”
La Grande Superintendent George Mendoza said he would rather see full funding for the Student Investment Account and cuts to the High School Success Fund, which also receives partial funding from the corporate activities tax.
Although the High School Success Fund, also referred to as Measure 98, has been important for schools, Mendoza said, it is mostly focused on helping high school students. He said the Student Investment Account offers support for all students.
“We’re at a time when all students need more mental health services, all students need more activities around physical instruction, all students need wellness support,” he said.
Districts’ fall models come with some significant one-time costs that need to be spent now.
Grants Pass School District is looking at offering in-person classes for elementary students and hybrid education at upper levels, said Sherry Ely, director of the Business and Finance Department.
The district would need to spend $1.5 million to add eight middle school classrooms to make physical distancing possible. The district is also buying a learning management system to improve distance learning after cobbling together programs in the spring.
The district needs to buy smaller things, too, including roughly 700 individual desks to replace the group tables teachers have favored in recent years and fogger machines to disinfect classrooms.
Ely said that if any of the expected funds are cut, the district would have to consider going full distance learning because it wouldn’t be able to afford to follow the Oregon Department of Education’s fall guidance.
The guidance makes COVID-19 liability protection crucial to opening, Ely said. Following all ODE’s rules and recommendations would be “nearly impossible,” potentially opening districts to lawsuits if someone becomes sick, she said.
“I feel like I’m just running into a brick wall every time I try to help problem solve,” she said. “Managing the costing side is not as big of a challenge as managing the liability side of the whole COVID situation.”
A legislative task force is studying liability protection for a special session, and OSBA is encouraging education advocates to urge legislators to act.
Claire Johnson, the South Umpqua School District financial services director, said she would be watching the Legislature’s special session not only for this year’s plan but also to see how it sets up for future state budget shortfalls.
“How is it going to affect us for the next biennium?” she said.
Tigard-Tualatin School District estimates its opening plan will raise costs $1,060 per student, some of which will be ongoing, according to Chief Financial Officer David Moore.
The budget planning also must still consider the unexpected.
“We’re not only working on a reopening plan, but what happens if the governor drops a bombshell in the next month and says schools aren’t reopening?” Moore said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA