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Even with prospect of aid, Minnesota school budgets in dire shape

By Elizabeth Shockman, Minnesota Public Radio News

St. Francis schools Superintendent Beth Giese has been getting up early to ride buses this week. The district is short-staffed and needs special education assistants on morning commutes. Her secretary has been doing similar work, riding in a school van.

“I have never worked this hard in my entire life,” Giese said. “You never know when you’re going to be contact tracing at 11 p.m. at night or riding school buses because someone tested positive.”

This is just one example of the random and unexpected disruptions Giese and her staff have faced this year. The terrain of constantly fluctuating enrollment, health regulations, virus outbreak and staffing struggles has made it difficult to plan ahead. And now, as schools are planning budgets and staffing for summer and fall programs, the instability has made for some hard decisions.

Several factors have forced Giese’s district to cut $4 million from its budget. Some of their students chose home schooling this year. Others have opted to not fill out free and reduced-price lunch forms because schools were providing free meals to all. That means they’re getting less compensatory aid and less revenue from enrolled students. And the district’s costs went up for things like personal protective equipment this year, cleaning supplies and devices for students. The cost increases, Giese said, are likely to continue.

“We are trying to be really proactive on that … we are bringing in massive amounts of mental health and chemical health,” she said. “Because even the students that are coming back now that have been gone for about six months — we are seeing behaviors that we have never seen before.”

Other Minnesota districts are facing similar budget woes. A recent statewide survey found that 92 percent of responding school districts would face deficits next year if state lawmakers don’t pass a funding formula increase.

There has been a flood of federal money earmarked for schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent is $1.3 billion from the American Rescue Plan — more than double what schools got in pandemic relief at the end of December.

But to Giese and many school leaders, the federal funding is both much-needed help and something they’re not yet quite able to incorporate in their budgets. For one thing, they don’t know exactly how much it will be or when exactly they’ll get it. Also, it’s temporary, which means it might not be able to address long-term issues like staffing. And they’re not sure what guidelines they’ll have to follow in spending it.

“They’re sending this money in and that is helping and it’s causing a lot of relief,” Giese said. “But the problem with these funds that are coming in is that they’re earmarked for such specific things.”

In Mankato, Minn., a $7.5 million budget reduction means the district is laying off close to 100 staff. In Bemidji, Minn., district leaders are closing an elementary school. They’re also laying off staff.

“I would say we’re the poster child of what I would call a perfect storm of a devastated, a totally destroyed budget,” said Bemidji Superintendent Tim Lutz.

Lutz’s district has long struggled with inadequate funding formulas, a special education funding gap and high transportation costs. Then, COVID-19 delivered a blow to their enrollment and the district racked up unexpected costs. An operating referendum failed to pass this fall.

Previous rounds of state and federal COVID-19 aid have helped, but Lutz worries he won’t get state funds until May or June and the latest round of federal stimulus money until the fall — far too late to make a difference in the cuts he has to decide on now.

“We are in the midst right now of reducing many programs, many staff people, we’ve had to close a small elementary school,” he said. “We’re probably looking at still needing to find $1.5 million to $2 million.”

Adding to the uncertainty, is the fact that home-schooled students might return in droves next year — many of them with higher academic and mental health needs.

“Hopefully we’ll get some of those students back next year,” Lutz said. “But we don’t know that, so we have to assume the worst, make these cuts to teachers and paraprofessionals and then hope like crazy that if we do see students come back, that we can hire some of these teachers back.”

The Fridley, Minn., school district, like many, has had to dip into its fund reserve balance to pay for things like devices for students, training for staff and other new costs associated with online learning. COVID-19 relief funds have helped with some of that, but Fridley Superintendent Kim Hiel said trying to plan ahead in this environment has still been difficult.

“We’re making decisions on quicksand,” Hiel said. “We’re believing this is what we’re going to do, we’re believing this is what’s going to happen, and there’s had to be so much flexibility.”

The instability means that planning for summer and fall programming without knowing exactly what will happen with the pandemic or enrollment or funding can feel more like gambling than a regular budget approval process usually does.

Still, Hiel and her team are moving forward with plans to address their students’ pandemic-related learning disruption. They’re filling the summer with arts and academic programs and field trips — trying to find creative ways to help kids burnt out on a long year of pandemic learning.

“Our goal is, how do we help our babies, our scholars come back and experience education, bring back that love of learning and help address any gaps that may have occurred in their academics and any gaps that may have occurred in their social-emotional needs,” Hiel said. “We’re going to have kids coming back that have not stepped foot in a building since March of 2020. So, that is what we’re looking at. How do we meet the needs of our kids.”