School board mulls post-COVID funding

The Warren County School District is receiving millions of federal dollars to help students make up for losses associated with the pandemic.

Those dollars won’t last forever and the school board is trying to plan for that eventually.

This year’s ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) impact is about $5.6 million.

The estimates for the next two school years are: $6.84 million in 2022-2023 and $7.06 million in 2023-2024.

During a budget discussion at Monday’s meeting of the finance committee, members heard projections and what will have to happen when the federal ESSER dollars go away. For now, that is expected to happen after the 2023-24 school year. Many of those dollars have directly paid personnel.

The district is looking to spend ESSER dollars on textbooks and technology — items that the board has opted to “kick down the road” in the past.

“We used to kick the can down to the road with our purchases,” Director of Business Services Jim Grosch said. “This year we’re making our purchases with ESSER dollars.”

Those two items add up to about $2.5 million each of the next two years.

Most of the remaining dollars go to salaries (about $2.7 million each year) and benefits (about $1.1 million each year). That was a conscious decision and one that goes against some past board practices.

“They don’t want to buy our equipment” with ESSER dollars, Superintendent Amy Stewart said. “They want to see things going to kids. We are in the kid business. We are in the people business. That’s why there are so many people on here.”

“That’s a total of about 44 people,” Stewart said. “This is what kid’s need.”

“I would put our plan up against any district in the commonwealth,” Stewart said. “We are really punching these dollars in, they are close to kids and doing good things.”

The problem is, “we have to figure out how to get them back out,” she said. “We can’t increase the budget by 44 FTEs (full-time equivalents).”

“In the past when we’ve gotten one-time money…” the board has instructed administration not to spend it on personnel, Board Member Donna Zariczny said. “This time, the money is coming from the government so we can right the wrong. I think it makes sense.”

“I want to commend you for the default position of the expenditure of this money being personnel in the trenches…,” Committee Chairman Arthur Stewart said. “That’s the most difficult category for this board to sustain.”

“You’ve made a conscious decision to plunge the lion’s share of the money into this,” he said. “I’m seeing, in the five-year projection… these people disappear from our district and their proximity to our students.”

“Why can’t we put more money into those categories that are less likely to cause the cliff?” he asked.

He suggested looking at what positions might be able to be eliminated sooner, rather than have all of the positions disappear at the same time.

“We’re going to lose over 15 percent of our staff,” he said. “Can you still accomplish what is needed for recovery from COVID and have not such a severe 15 percent cliff in loss of personnel? Could we cut back on personnel a bit next year… so that we don’t have such a severe loss of support for our students.”

Doing so “would give us a means of revenue to keep on the payroll” some who are still “desperately needed,” Arthur Stewart said.

Amy Stewart said some of the cuts would have been made this year if not for the pandemic.

“We could have cut 12 to 13 FTEs last year,” she said. “We know that those have to come out. Some things are necessary right now.”

The list of 44 positions funded by ESSER include: 11 online teachers, seven “class size reduction initiative” teachers, three curriculum realignment teachers, two school counselors, custodians, paraprofessionals, and others.

If those personnel eventually are let go, there will be impacts. The district’s effort to reduce elementary class sizes “instead of looking at class sizes of 15, 16, 17, we’re going to be back in the low 20s,” Amy Stewart said.

The district may have to tighten the cap on the number of out-of-district virtual academy students it serves, even though those students bring the district revenue. Amy Stewart said given only two options, she would rather “fill a seat” in the district’s staff than a virtual position for the benefit of other districts’ students.

Regardless of how the ESSER dollars and the positions they helped create shake out, the district’s projected finances are bleak.

“Unless expenses are decreased or revenues are increased or both… to wait until 2025-2026 will be too late,” Grosch said.

The projected budget, which Grosch said is highly preliminary, for 2025-2026 shows the district’s fund balance gone and the ledger $5.9 million in the red. The projection for the next year is even more dire with the district showing a deficit of $16.4 million.

“Either we need to increase revenue somehow or we need to harness what it is we are doing and change our spending,” Amy Stewart said.


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