Educators and school officials addressed the Joint Legislative Education Committee on Wednesday, October 7, sharing success stories related to school openings while also describing a host of pandemic-related challenges, including budget shortfalls, enrollment losses, substitute teacher shortages, health and safety issues, and special education costs.
Superintendents from around the state expressed grave concerns about their current and future budgets, citing inadequate federal funds for COVID-related spending and declines in enrollment that could imperil future state adequacy funding.
“We simply do not have the money, and neither do our communities,” said White Mountains Regional School District Superintendent Marion Anastasia, one of five superintendents who testified before the Committee.
CARES Act funds awarded by the federal government last spring have proved insufficient in covering pandemic-related costs ranging from technology to staffing, according to the superintendents who testified. CARES Act funding was meant to offset the costs of districts’ transition to remote learning in March, and other expenses associated with physical reopening in the fall, including PPE such as face coverings and sanitation equipment, additional substitute teachers, and extra staff to support social distancing rules. There has been no additional federal funding as of October 7.
John Goldhardt, Superintendent of the Manchester School District, said his district has spent nearly double the $5.8 million it was allocated in CARES funds. Mark MacLean, Superintendent of the Merrimack Valley and Andover School Districts, said CARES funds amount to about $150 per student in his district — not enough to pay for even one Chromebook per student.
Complicating the problem was rule guidance issued by the US Department of Education related to CARES Act funding, which “directed LEAs to provide equitable services to non-public school students and teachers based on the ratio of all students in the public and non-public sectors.” This meant that, under this rule, federal CARES Act funds allocated to a district had to be shared with private schools. Although a federal judge struck down the rule last month, schools are still in negotiations over the money. In Manchester, “$700,000 went out to private schools in the area,” Godlhardt said.
Superintendents also spoke about concerns regarding enrollment and potential impact on next year’s budget. Some shared how their October 1 projections show a decrease in Average Daily Membership (ADM) — better understood as “enrollment” — numbers; ADM is used to determine a district’s state adequacy funding for the following school year. The Manchester School District, for example, which serves 14,000 students, has a projected decrease of 820 students this year, Goldhardt said, and colleagues in surrounding districts are reporting similar decreases. Under current state education funding statute, this would represent a potential decrease in state funding by $3,040,560 for Manchester in base adequacy funds for the 2021-2022 school year.*
Superintendents are employing a variety of strategies to fill budget gaps due to COVID-19. Lisa Witte, Superintendent of the Monadnock Regional School District, said she’ll likely have to move money from the general fund to cover pandemic-related expenses. Her district received $423,834 in CARES funds, an average of $257 per student, but has already spent more than $600,000 so far.
Along with budget dilemmas, superintendents shared numerous other pandemic-related concerns, including learning gaps due to past and current school closures, the impact of the upcoming cold and flu season, and technology back orders that have also affected CARES Act spending.
They discussed positive aspects of the return to school as well. “Our greatest success is getting our students back in the buildings,” MacLean said. “Our communities are being very supportive.”
Other groups who spoke at the hearing underscored the fiscal woes schools are facing while highlighting additional victories and challenges they’ve witnessed in their roles.
Special educators said the additional IEP meetings required by Governor Sununu’s Executive Order 48 in May have resulted in unanticipated expenditures. Rachel Borge, Director of Special Services for SAU 81, said that her district has spent an estimated $110,448 conducting 472 Individualized Education Program meetings to fulfill the executive order.
School nurses said they’ve been struggling with a lack of clear guidance around COVID-19 protocols and a shortage of PPE.
And school board members said their communities have faced hardships that no amount of planning could have prevented. Hopkinton School Board member Andrea Folsom shared how, after just a few weeks of hybrid learning, her school district had to go fully remote because two students tested positive, resulting in five teachers being quarantined. “We simply did not have the staff to continue teaching in-person,” she said. “Our substitutes, teachers, and instructional assistants are finite resources and we’ve already reached the limit.”
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was scheduled to address the panel but was unable to attend. Members of the Committee did not take any immediate action but proposed a meeting with the Department of Education to gain clarity on funding issues.
* Figure assumes base adequacy at its current amount of $3,708; this estimate does not include differentiated aid. October 1 ADM projections are initial projections, and the DOE will update them over the school year as student enrollment changes.
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