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‘Up in the air’: WCSD has funding concerns, but streams available

Warren County School District is doing what it must to continue educating its students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new education environment is putting the board and administration in a new funding environment.

“The fiscal picture going forward isn’t rosy by any means,” Superintendent Amy Stewart said. “All the things that were known and assumed before are up in the air.”

One of the additional expenses facing the district is delivering material in new ways.

Stewart said at a previous meeting that she would be surprised if the state’s schools reopen before the end of the school year. Now that there is a continuity of education plan in place, opening the schools isn’t even a priority.

Board member Paul Mangione clarified that even “if kids can be in the buildings… our plan is still going to be the (continuity of education) plan that you outlined…

“I can’t see us going back to a normal school year,” he said. “People are not going to be comfortable having their kids go back to school.”

Without the buildings, online delivery of instruction would be the easiest way. Many districts in the state are moving forward with online delivery plans.

But, Stewart’s situation is different from that of other superintendents.

At Monday’s virtual meeting of the school board’s Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology Committee, Stewart said some superintendents are working to deliver instruction offline to 20 students. Her challenge in that area is upwards of 1,000 students.

There are dollars available.

The federal CARES Act includes $13.2 billion in its Education Stabilization Fund for K-12 schools nationwide including more than $500 million for Pennsylvania K-12 schools, according to estimates from the Congressional Research Service.

An additional funding stream in the act provides more than $100 million to Gov. Tom Wolf to help address schools that are particularly hard-hit.

There is another pool of $5 million available from the Pennsylvania coffers to help schools purchase equipment to deliver on continuity of education plans.

“The state is offering equity grants,” Stewart said.

But, district officials are concerned that legislators are not aware of internet conditions in the district.

“Our gap is so large,” she said. “When we look at 1,000-plus kids… not having access at home. That’s a pretty big equity grant.”

There are also strings attached.

“We have to prove that we don’t have dollars sitting someplace else,” Stewart said.

The district has millions of dollars set aside in its designated fund balance. Those dollars were set aside years in advance and aimed at pending large expenditures — new textbooks for 4,000 students, major technology upgrades, and others.

“We have plans for our dollars,” Stewart said. “It was very disappointing that we have to go through those hoops.”

Officials know they need to do what they have to do to get through the current crisis.

“Regardless of whether we get federal funds or not… we need to take care of our students and we need to make sure that we have reasonable demands on our existing staff,” Stewart said.

Board members agreed. They also suggested informing lawmakers of the district’s position.

“We have a unique one-time opportunity to go to Harrisburg… use the relationships we’ve developed in Harrisburg to say this is how we’re different,” board member Arthur Stewart said. “We don’t have 20 kids (without internet), we have 1,000. We want an extra million-dollar grant.”

Board members remembered the situation when the Erie School District went to the state in a budget crisis and received additional funding.

“Is there anything that we can communicate to the legislators… we’ll do what we have to do… here’s the school district you’re going to have to fix,” committee member Joe Colosimo said. “If we’re going to be blocked to access from additional dollars… we’ll rip through all our money, then we’ll come to you and say, you’ve got to fix this.

“Either they help us now or they bail us out two years from now,” Colosimo said. “We need to let… representatives know… ‘We’ll spend our dollars, we’ll do it diligently, we’ll do it frugally. But, when we’re done with (our) dollars, we’re out. If you’re going to try to fix it… it’s going to cost you 10 times as much (later).”

Arthur Stewart suggested authorizing some dollars to hire people to help legislators understand the situation. “We can’t hire lobbyists, but we can hire people to tell our stories,” he said.

“That’s the type of help that I would need,” Amy Stewart said. “Marketing is not something that we have a niche in here.”

There will be other costs.

Although the Phase IV educational continuity plans are highly fluid, officials expect to have to offer additional summer programming this year.

While board members were eager to see summer school fees waived to remove barriers, costs will go up.

Whether the district can find enough of its own teachers who would like to teach in the summer or use retired teachers, certified teachers who are not working in the district, or other people qualified to teach, those people are going to need to be paid.

Mangione said he is hearing from the community that at least the district is experiencing some cost savings.

“Cost savings?” he said. “I don’t see any cost savings anywhere. Just the opposite.”

The district is paying its personnel and benefits. Those line items represent about two-thirds of the budget.

The buildings are being used less than normal, but those costs do not represent a large portion of the budget.

“That’s maybe a perception that’s out there. It’s a naive thought,” Stewart said regarding cost savings.

The dollars going to personnel are well spent, she said. “The time that our folks are putting into reinventing school couldn’t be higher. We’ve never worked like this.”

She pointed out that feeding a significant portion of students breakfasts and lunches outside of the schools every day is costing the district.

“Our food costs are meant to be a break-even,” Stewart said. “To get food out to our kids… we’re hitting 1,500, 1,600 kids every day.”

Dollars aren’t the only uncertainty. Stewart raised concerns about policies that need to be revised in response to the continuity of education plan.

Arthur Stewart suggested the district check with Solicitor Chris Byham about possibly crafting a “master COVID-19 policy” that would give the superintendent power to handle situations particular to the COVID-19 closures.

The district has concerns moving forward, but those concerns are not getting in the way.

“These are unique times,” Colosimo said. “It sounds like everybody’s working together… to take care of the students.”

“That is absolutely the case,” Amy Stewart said.

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