Reduced costs, new expenses, reduced revenue, higher costs and new federal grants all have been a part of school finance during the pandemic.
Early on expenses were reduced. March through June 2020, school buildings, for the most part, were closed and instruction took place online.
With students not in school buildings, Director of Business Services Carey Bradley said utility costs were “dramatically” reduced.
With teachers working remotely, she said fewer substitutes were needed and staffing costs were reduced.
“We reduced staffing costs for unpaid time-off requests, vacancies and additional pay for work outside the teacher contract day,” Bradley said.
With people not going anywhere, travel expenses for student activities and field trips were reduced.
Without meal sales March through June 2020, the school district nutrition program struggled financially.
“We signed up for the federal meal program to provide for the pickup meals free to families,” she said, “but the revenue was still not sufficient to cover expenses in the 2019-20 school year.”
The current school year has included in-person and online learning, and the school district has focused on meeting the needs for both – with current staffing levels and within budget, she said.
With grades 7-12 in a hybrid learning model for much of the year (cohorts alternated between in-person and online learning every other day), Bradley said the nutrition program again struggled financially.
According to Bradley, pandemic-related expenses have included additional transportation routes to support physical distancing, additional bus cleaning, signage, barriers, personal protective equipment, and teaching staff to support small cohorts and virtual learning.
With more fresh air being moved through school district buildings to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, utility costs have increased, she said.
To assist local educational agencies, federal funding is available in Wisconsin through the Department of Public Instruction in three rounds of grant funding.
“They are all in response to COVID and recovery plans,” Bradley said during Monday’s finance committee meeting.
The program is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Grant Program.
School districts are not handed money, instead Bradley described they must have a plan, spend money on the plan and then get reimbursed for money spent.
ESSER I is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted in March 2020. In the first round, available at the beginning of the school year, the Milton School District received about $243,800.
Superintendent Rich Dahman said the Milton School District focused a lot of its ESSER I funding on COVID-related physical health and safety measures. ESSER I funding also was used to support the nutrition program, which he said had significant losses.
Additional ESSER funding is being allocated under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, enacted in December 2020, and the American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in March 2021.
Initial ESSER II funding for the Milton School District is estimated at about $880,400. ESSER II will also include in-person incentive funding based on the time students received instruction in person.
Director of Student Services Susan Probst said the district’s focus for ESSER II funding is to support academic, social, emotional and behavioral student needs and building teacher capacity to address those needs.
“Kids have experienced lots of different things and it’s not good or bad virtual or good or bad in-person. It’s just been so different than what they’ve experienced up to this point,” Probst said.
The district is in the process of determining what instructional resources will be needed to address unfinished and interrupted learning.
Principals are making requests for funding. They were asked to include in their requests how they determined a need exists and how a measurable impact will be made with the funding requested.
In other words, Dahman said, “What does the data show us that our students need and then how are we going to address that?”
The funding is not intended for long-term commitments, he said, so the question is “What can we do with the short-term money that will have a long-term impact?”
The idea also isn’t to spend that $880,000 before September, Probst said.
“It’s to allocate some now so we can get some things in place in September and then what can we learn during those first couple of weeks of school from how the kids come in and how they respond and where do we see gaps,” she said. “Then we can allocate more money to fill those gaps.”
Probst gave examples of some of the requests made so far: additional books for Literacy Footprints (a guided reading system), Responsive Classroom training (a teaching approach based on creating a sense of community), Edmentum (online learning programs) and interns so teachers can do selective interventions with children.
According to DPI, anticipated ESSER III funding for the Milton School District is nearly $2 million, Bradley said, “but it still has to go through Joint Finance Committee.” So the district might not receive $2 million.
ESSER III requires school districts to reserve or use 20% of its funding to mitigate learning loss.
Bradley said the Milton School District has been talking about using some of the funding to address indoor air quality concerns not addressed by referendum funding.
And, again, she said, “We’re also looking at physical health and safety measures and additional costs not covered elsewhere (school nutrition).”