Public schools face a fall with a lot more costs and a lot less funding

By Laura Meckler and Valerie Strauss 

May 27, 2020

As school districts consider how and when to get students back to classrooms, they are facing a financial riddle with enormous implications: Every back-to-school plan involves new spending at a time when states and districts are bracing for significant cuts.

The needs are enormous. Students who fell behind this spring will require extra help. Counselors will be needed to help children who have lost family or suffered trauma. Nurses will be called on to ensure students and staff are healthy.

Authorities, meanwhile, are recommending a raft of new procedures, some of them costly, designed to stem the spread of germs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends requiring masks for staff members and encouraging them for children. It suggests no-touch trash cans, cleaning school surfaces, buses and playground equipment daily, allowing fewer children on buses, and checking student and staff temperatures daily.AD

“We know that it will cost more to return to school,” said Austin Beutner, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country. “It will cost more because we need to invest in protective equipment. It will cost more because schools need to not just be cleaned but sanitized. The mental health crisis in the communities will come to the schools when we reopen. We need more nurses and counselors to support students.”

But like most states, California is facing massive budget shortfalls. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has already proposed a 10 percent cut to the state’s main K-12 school fund, with additional reductions elsewhere. In Los Angeles, that would translate to a $500 million loss and “irreparable harm,” Beutner said. In San Diego, officials said it might mean something even worse. Given the costs associated with safely reopening, the district might be forced to conduct school remotely as a cost-savings move.

“The math simply will not work,” said district spokesman Andrew Sharp. “We cannot ask schools to do more at the same time as their funding is being slashed.”AD

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Local officials and education advocates are begging Washington to fill the gaps. But prospects for substantial new federal money appear shaky at best, with Senate Republicans showing little interest in writing a big check.

From ‘hopeful’ to ‘grim’

With the economy spiraling, governors across the country have ordered significant cuts to K-12 education spending, with more promised as next year’s budgets are finalized. With falling revenue, it’s almost impossible to balance the budget without cuts to K-12 spending, which makes up more than a third of the state budget on average.

Educators fear a scenario worse than the Great Recession, when slashed state budgets led to teacher layoffs, reductions in school days, elimination of some full-day kindergarten programs and less money for textbooks and equipment.AD

Schools never fully recovered. Before the coronavirus crisis, there were 77,000 fewer local school workers than there were in 2008, before the last recession, yet  schools  were   serving   about 2 million more students, said Michael Leachman, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. Funding also remained below prerecession levels when adjusted for inflation, according to the center.

And Leachman sees fresh signs of damage: Last month, as the economy cratered, the number of Americans employed by local schools fell by 462,000, he said.

Complaints of low pay and meager funding sparked the 2018 Red for Ed movement, in which teachers, first in Republican-led states, went on strike or led protests to demand more resources and better pay. Many governors promised raises that are now in jeopardy. In Virginia, a promised salary hike has already been rescinded.AD

The cuts are just now making themselves apparent. Many districts had to trim their 2019-2020 budgets, which typically end in June, to make up for lost revenue this spring. They are now finalizing budgets for next fiscal year.

The Philadelphia schools are projecting a $38 million deficit for 2020-2021, compared with a $167 million surplus the system had been anticipating. The forecast “went from hopeful and investment-oriented to grim in a matter of weeks,” said Helen Gym, a public education activist who serves on the Philadelphia City Council.

New York City schools absorbed $185 million in budget cuts this year, squeezing the savings out of the district’s central office budget. But a $642 million shortfall for next academic year will eat into individual school spending. The city is also delaying a preschool expansion and trimming other programs.AD

Broward County Public Schools, in Florida, announced a hiring freeze, anticipating cuts from the state between $35 million and $150 million. Cuts on the higher end would mean larger class sizes and cuts to arts, school safety programs and transportation, said Superintendent Robert Runcie.

And in Paterson Public Schools, in New Jersey, the preliminary 2020-2021 budget would require nearly 245 teacher layoffs and a tax increase averaging $240 per homeowner each year. Superintendent Eileen F. Shafer said she also is concerned about the cost of protective equipment for staff and of cleaning 54 buildings. “There is substantial cost that goes along with covid,” she said.

Calling on Congress

In March, as the economy ground to a halt, educators pressed Congress for help. But while a $2 trillion assistance package included about $13.5 billion for K-12 schools, education groups said it wasn’t enough. They’re now lobbying for some $200 billion more. Without it, 275,000 teachers could be laid off, according to estimates by the Council of the Great City Schools, a lobby group for big urban districts.AD

A bill passed by the House earlier this month included $90 billion to states for K-12 and higher education, but its prospects in the Senate are dim. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said last week that he is not sure whether additional funding is needed.

“Tennessee has gotten about $5 billion from the federal government in a month that it didn’t expect to get because of the shutdown of everything,” he told reporters. “I want to wait and see what the impact of all that will be.”

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the education committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview that it is imperative that Congress provide more money: “It’s been haphazard right now, but it can’t be haphazard in the fall. It will take more money, and Congress should provide it.”AD

She did not list K-12 funding on a rundown of coronavirus-related priorities released Friday, though a Murray spokeswoman said it remains a top priority nonetheless.

Whatever the final damage, it is expected to look a lot like the virus’s other impacts: tougher on poor urban districts than wealthier suburban ones. Those better-off districts, with strong local property tax bases, are better positioned to absorb cuts than those that depend more on state funding.

Which is why, this spring, Ohio imposed a 3.7 percent average cut to school districts, with much larger reductions for wealthy districts. The result was that the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the state’s poorest system, lost $5.7 million this spring, compared with $16.7 million had the cuts been spread evenly. Meanwhile, the wealthy Upper Arlington Schools, in suburban Columbus, lost $1.8 million in state funding — more than half its annual appropriation — and had to write a refund check to the state.AD

The cuts are unsettling, but Paul W. Imhoff, Upper Arlington’s superintendent, said he understood. “You have to look at it through the equity lens,” he said.

Still, Cleveland school officials are worried about next fiscal year, which begins in July. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has said he is looking at cuts of up to 20 percent for some agencies. Local property tax collections could fall off amid economic distress downtown. And in November, the district needs to ask voters to renew a tax levy that expires at year’s end.

Eric Gordon, chief executive of the district, said officials are trying to figure out whether voters will support renewing, or even increasing, the levy. He said he is terrified by a scenario in which the levy fails and other tax support falls away. But he is crafting a budget for next academic year that assumes the levy passes and state contributions are not cut again.

“We’re looking at the potential of catastrophic decisions if this worst-case scenario were to come true,” he said. “My job is to make sure it doesn’t.”

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