School districts across the state received another dose of bad news last week, which will cost Payson schools more than $600,000.
It’s a second financial blow delivered in the midst of the pandemic, which has already thrown most districts into disarray.
The latest blow came with the release of a list of reductions in per-student funding imposed as a result of the district’s hasty, improvised shift to distance learning in response to clusters of COVID cases among students and staff.
In normal times, the state pays districts a reduced amount for students in online programs, on the assumption the costs are lower for those students because the districts don’t have to provide classroom space and other facilities.
However, many districts like Payson started the semester this year still in the distance learning mode, waiting for COVID cases to decline sufficiently to meet state guidelines for in-person classes. Many districts — like Payson — then resumed in-person classes, only to shift again to distance learning after clusters of cases developed among students and staff.
“We didn’t believe that the state would take the 40th-day count information when all PUSD schools were still closed due to not meeting benchmarks and consider all students as if they were online students,” said Payson Superintendent Linda Gibson. “Online students are funded differently. Please note that distant learning is not online learning, even though most of the population see it this way. We will develop a recommendation for the board regarding how to handle the cuts.”
It’s the second major hit for most districts in recent weeks. Gov. Doug Ducey had promised to not cut enrollment-based funding by more than 2%, even if many parents kept their children home due to the pandemic. But enrollment dropped by 50,000 students statewide and the state notified districts the $370 million in federal funding it received wouldn’t cover the decline. As a result, most districts lost about half of what they’d expected — which for Payson meant a $540,000 hit to the budget.
The budget chaos is another side effect of the state’s shift to “current year” funding for schools — originally imposed mostly to help charter schools with their fluctuating enrollment. Previously, schools got funding in August based on the enrollment in the spring. Now, they don’t know for sure how much money they’ll get until the 40th day of the fall semester, based on enrollment at that point.
The most recent change will cost Payson another $622,000, with the school year already well underway, said Director of Business Service Kathie Manning.
“So, what they are saying is they are going to adjust our budgets (current year) down for distance learning,” she said. “We had to report how many days each student attended in person and distance. We only report for the first 40 days. Well, schools didn’t open back up until after the 40th day. So, we all show 100% (or just about) distance learners. They are now determining how many are full-time distance learners, and how many are part-time distance learners. They are only funding distance learning like they fund AOIs (Arizona Online Instruction, like PCS Online) which is 95% for full-time online and 85% for part-time online.”
A state spreadsheet shows that the Tonto Basin School District will lose $3,600, the Pine School District will lose almost $38,000 and the Young School District will lose $5,200. Those districts returned to in-person classes sooner than Payson due to the then-low-spread of COVID in their attendance areas.
Southern Gila County districts will take a much bigger hit. Miami will lose $270,000 and Globe will lose $283,000.
Payson’s enrollment this year dropped about 15%. In addition, about 15% of students have continued as full-time distance learners. The rest of the returning students have shifted in and out of distance learning in response to clusters of cases and a resulting lack of substitutes.
The big problem this year is that districts by and large don’t actually have lower costs for distance learners — since they’ve incurred big extra costs due to COVID and have been improvising from one week to the next. If anything, the haphazard shift to distance learning has created extra expenses and stress on an already short-staffed faculty.
Payson received some $500,000 in direct federal payments due to the pandemic, which didn’t pass through the state. However, the district opted to spend all that money on outfitting each student with a Chromebook to make distance learning more effective. That investment proved invaluable due to the heavy reliance on distance learning at the start of the semester and during the temporary closures of the high school and middle school. The district has decided to return to distance learning after the holiday break and continuing until at least Jan. 19, due to a rise in cases in the community and on campus. However, the district had little money left to cover other costs of the pandemic, including a big increase in the need for substitute teachers, a huge drain on administrative time to juggle schedules and cope with questions about the pandemic, big increases in the cost of cleaning and preparing classrooms, purchase of software to make distance learning possible and other costs.
The districts received the latest bad news about the extent of the cut due to their reliance on distance learning last week, so school boards haven’t yet had a chance to figure out how to deal with the new shortfall.
Congress over the weekend came to terms on a second national stimulus bill, after months of wrangling. The $900 billion package will likely include $82 billion for colleges and schools, so districts may get some additional relief in the coming weeks — although it may not come close to making up for the two reductions in state assistance.