Schools face funding slashes

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Schools face funding slashesAs schools begin to regain footing in the new “distance learning” model dictated by closures to reduce outbreaks of COVID-19, the resulting economic losses relating to state mandates are generating new fiscal challenges.

Dr. David Ostash, superintendent of Sierra Sands Unified School District, read a statement from Kern County Superintendent of Schools during the April 16 meeting of the board of trustees.

“Over the past few weeks, it has become apparent the COVID-19 pandemic will have a dramatic effect on state general fund revenues and, by extension, K-12 local education agency financial health.”

At the onset of the crisis, Gov. Gavin Newsom assured schools that the state would fund necessary expenses facilitating the shift toward remote provision of services. However, any additional funding expected to trickle in to cover those costs pale in comparison to the mounting losses anticipated in the governor’s May Revise, which would outline updated guidance for the June budget.

“We have abruptly moved into a very different economic environment. Therefore, all districts and charter schools should immediately begin assessing a range of potential cash flow and budgetary impacts,” concludes the statement from KCSOS.

“While we do not yet know the exact impact of this fiscal crisis, we should be making thoughtful consideration right now, and hereon forward, about every expenditure,” Ostash told his board.

He advised the board that the district expected, in the near future, to see cuts in projected cost of living allowances. “Worse than that is the possibility of actual apportionment cuts. We will need to keep a very careful eye on cash flow, as there is the possibility the state could revert to payment deferrals, which was a strategy widely used by the state in the last recession.”

Ostash said that he and his staff are eagerly awaiting insight from School Services, which is expected to provide guidance on the May Revise during a May 19 virtual workshop.

However, School Services has also issued a statement to educators that information may not be available in time to be incorporated into the adopted budget in June.

If that is the case, the issue may be revisited in August once the budget picture is more clear.

Ostash’s remarks at the beginning of the meeting served as a lens through which routine business items were viewed.

Among the items presented to the board was a continuation of training offered to district employees.

“I think it’s really critical not to overreact, but I also have a serious concern that nobody has any real idea of what things are going to look like when this is all over,” said Trustee Bill Farris.

By making reductions in its fiscal obligations early, Farris noted that the district expands its options for future decisions.

“I think we need to look with great scrutiny at every expenditure we make. We need to ask if it is absolutely critical, and is it absolutely critical right now,” he said. “These are indeed extraordinary times. I believe our ability to exercise control is going to be based on how critical we are of each situation that comes before us.”

Lisa Decker, state and federal programs funding coordinator for the district, said that she understood the board’s position. However, she noted that the item before the board is funded through Title I. If the money is not spent this year on an eligible project, that funding cannot be moved to the general fund.

Trustee Tim Johnson said that he agreed that the board needed to exercise scrutiny. While that pot of money may be classified as supplemental funding, he said it’s important to acknowledge that those pots of funding may go away as appropriations are reduced.

Decker agreed that was a possibility, but it would not impact this year’s funding. The motion was passed unanimously.

The discussion resurfaced during the purchase of updated science textbooks.

“‘Doing more with less’ is going to be the mantra with everything,” said Farris. Without knowing how bad the fiscal crisis could be, “I just don’t want us to wish, six months from now, that we wish we could have pushed some of these expenditures out another year.”

He asked staff to provide the board with additional input on how deferred spending would impact education.

“We can’t say that we won’t do something because it’s hard, because we are going to get to a point where we have to do hard things.”

Michelle Savko, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that the district was leveraging funding dollars from the state lottery, which could not be used otherwise.

“This is precisely the kind of scrutiny we need to have on every expenditure,” said Ostash.

However, from an academic standpoint, he said that purchasing that kind of curriculum and support is essential to helping students achieve targets under accountability measures.

Savko added that teachers are also awaiting, with baited breath, procurement so they can move forward with lesson planning.

“I really like the fact that Bill is being up front and center,” said Trustee Kurt Rockwell. However, while he agreed the district needed to be in a solid financial position, he agreed that updated science curriculum is a critical expenditure.

Johnson added that moving forward, it would be helpful to identify for the board which funding requests were based on fundings tied to specific programs.

The board unanimously voted to fund the new curriculum.

The meeting can be viewed in its entirety at https://drive.google.com/open?id=1iyhoaqLn1Of6wGBQ9aFEu7JXAFigJR3p. Agendas are available at www.ssusd.org.

Pictured: SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash — News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-04-24