(TNS) — Tucson school districts could lose more than $30 million in state funding if state lawmakers don’t change the law that funds online learning at a lower rate than in-person instruction.
Statewide, public schools doing remote learning at the direction of health officials are projected to lose up to $266 million because
“When the state sits on a billion-dollar rainy-day fund and projects a $2 billion surplus, there is no excuse to not fully fund every school,” said
When schools closed last March, state lawmakers voted to fully fund remote learning for the rest of that school year.
It will be several weeks, at least, until a decision is made. And meanwhile school officials are holding their breaths, hoping they’ll get enough funding to sustain themselves without making cuts.
While two federal relief packages are delivering schools one-time fiscal support, many public schools will not be able to stretch federal relief dollars to cover long existing gaps in their budgets on top of pandemic-related expenses and enrollment declines, Hoffman said.
“Without predictable, ongoing state funding, many public schools, particularly small schools, will not be able to sustain their operations and provide a full range of services to students and families in their communities,” she said.
It’s hard for school districts to plan how to spend their money when they don’t know how much they’ll have, says
“If the Legislature drags this issue out until May, all it does is make it harder and harder for us,” Little said.
Amphitheater, which opened for limited in-person classes before returning to remote learning under
The number of students in
ENROLLMENT LOSSES COMPOUND SHORTFALL
But those grants fell more than $250 million short of what schools were promised, in part, because of huge enrollment losses in public schools.
On top of that, the state put a $500 cap on each student lost. As a result, districts that saw the steepest enrollment declines received the least amount of money proportionally to cover those losses.
Preliminary enrollment data shows the average number of students enrolled in public schools daily throughout the state fell more than 33,000 short of this time last year, according to data from the
Preliminary data also shows a shift of families choosing charter schools over traditional school districts, which serve a larger body of students and students in need. Average daily membership in school districts was about 47,900 lower and about 14,700 higher in charter schools, some of which opened for in-person learning sooner than the state advised. Those numbers are not finalized and could change before official enrollment data is released in mid-March.
While enrollment declines in many school districts are not new, the problem is now so much greater, says school finance expert
If you’re a district and you lose a student, you lose the revenue for that student although the cost doesn’t go down, Essigs says. Schools still need to pay for teachers, utilities, transportation and more.
“You can’t go to the teacher and say, ‘We’re going to pay you 5% less because we’re getting 5% less,'” he said. “The teacher is going to get the same salary; the benefits for that teacher are the same, the insurance. What really makes this hurtful for schools is they’re having funding reduced for expenses that aren’t reduced, and in fact it’s costing them more with all the expense of the technology and equipment they’ve had to buy.”
And even if a district lost enough kids this year to close a school, many are hoping that the students will return once the current crisis is over.
“Districts aren’t getting what they were told they would get to address these very severe problems,” Essigs says.
For example, while Amphitheater received $5.6 million in grants to cover enrollment losses, if they were compensated the way the governor had originally laid out, they would have received nearly $10.5 million, according to calculations by the
“A lot of people made decisions on what to do for staffing based upon that grant, and the grant money didn’t really materialize the way it was supposed to,” says Little, with the
Schools are expecting a second wave of federal relief dollars, which Little says will cover some of the Amphitheater’s steepest losses. But, sharing Hoffman’s sentiment, he says that money was meant for relief from steep costs associated with the pandemic and remote learning.
“That’s money that’s not available for us to do additional services to get kids caught up,” he said. “We really want to use that money to do additional remediation work, additional summer stuff, things to get kids back on track. If we can’t use that money for that, it just goes to cover the state.”
“A NEW LOW”
“So this is what we found ourselves in, is additional resources the federal government provided is being taken away by the state, and we’re at net zero,” Chief Financial Officer
Sunnyside stands to lose as much as $4.2 million in state aid with the reduction for remote learners, according to calculations by the
To put that into perspective, that could pay for the salaries of 80 first-year teachers, a year’s worth of utilities, 3 1/2 years of liability insurance premiums or 120 additional custodians.
While Sunnyside was able to cover this shortfall with the one-time federal dollars, despite the governor’s grants being about $1.8 million less than expected, it put the district in a position where that budget loss will have to be carried forward to cover next year’s expenditures. While the district typically ends the year with a budget balance of between $2.5 million to about $5 million, next year it is projecting a budget balance of only $169,000.
“For fall next year, the projection basically is that we’re gonna wipe out our savings,” Encinas said. “At this point in time, hopefully, this is the worst-case scenario.”
TUSD, the city’s largest school district with about 40,000 students, stands to lose more than $11.9 million because of remote learners being funded at a lower rate, and the district received about $6.2 million less than expected in grants.
Unlike the rest of
Even schools offering in-person learning stand to lose millions because most are still offering remote learning for the many parents who don’t feel safe sending their children into classrooms while the virus continues at near-peak levels.
“We are very under-resourced to address the challenges of providing an education to our students this year,” said Superintendent
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