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Schools plan for fluctuating expenses in an uncertain school year as state cuts loom

Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 10:15 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Whether a school district opts for virtual or in-person learning this fall, schools are adjusting to a range of abnormal and fluctuating expenses in the COVID-19 era. A likely budget repair package is almost certain to include cuts to K-12 education at a state level, the single biggest source of revenue for Wisconsin schools.

In Wausau where the district has announced an all-virtual return for at least the first month, chief finance officer Robert Tess says the costs will be varied.

For a virtual return, “We’re spending a lot of money on technology, we’re spending money on webcams, we’re spending money on professional development for delivering instruction in a virtual setting,” he explained. But a safe in-person return would also be expensive, with the added costs for masks, hand sanitizer, and other potential expenses like additional busses for social distancing and other measures.

Any district practicing virtual learning or in-person with precautions are going to experience similar funding stretches, Dan Rossmiller with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards noted. If class sizes are smaller, a district needs more staff. If students will be more spread out, some might incur added expenses for leasing space. If students need more spacing in busses, more routes and drivers are needed. Technology, training, safer facilities—they all come with a price tag.

“The choices that school are making all come with certain costs,” Rossmiller explained. “If the virus continues to be a growing problem, the social distancing measures are going to affect just about every aspect of school.”

Those costs don’t necessarily mean a more expensive year overall, Tess noted. Rising costs in one place can be offset with costs in another, but budgets at the WSD and most districts across the state have also been slashed in anticipation of stripped-down funding from the state in a widely-anticipated budget repair. Governor Tony Evers has announced an additional $250 million must be cut from the biennial budget currently, in addition to $70 million earlier this fall as income and sales tax revenues for the state plummet amid rising unemployment and an ongoing pandemic. That amount is likely to rise; state lawmakers have indicated they are waiting for tax revenue reports for July before they begin making decisions about how to repair the current 2020-2021 budget.

“I don’t see any clear sign that the legislature will come in to address those issues before the election,” Rossmiller noted. “We don’t know the extent of cuts that may be coming at the state level; we don’t know when they’re going to hit.”

Cuts could come in different forms. Wisconsin could potentially decrease per-pupil aid which currently sits at $742 per student, and isn’t paid out until March. Overall, K-12 education represents about a third of the state budget, and is usually the single largest source of revenue for school districts, followed by local property taxes and federal aid.

In Wausau, Tess says that starting in May, they’ve adjusted the year’s budget according to last year’s state revenue—which doesn’t include the 3.5% increase currently included for K-12 education in this year’s state budget. After talking to local lawmakers, he believes working off last year’s estimates will be sufficient and their budget for the year is safe.

“If a repair bill came through that was worse than what we anticipated, that would really send us spinning,” he noted.

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.

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