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As K-12 schools look to the start of the 2020-21 school year they are wrestling with budgeting, staff safety, student safety, PPE purchases, technology, cleaning requirements, and more. The Department of Public Instruction released the general school aids estimates on Wednesday, July 1. While these estimates are what schools should receive through the state budget process, some administrators express concern the state may do a budget repair bill and reduce school funding. Additionally, schools are looking at school opening guidance and trying to determine where in their budgets they are going to pay for PPE, additional technology, additional staffing, and possibly additional busing.
The Assembly Education Committee held a public hearing to discuss the DPI guidance document for opening schools in the fall for COVID-19. Educational stakeholders from around the state testified to the committee on issues they have faced during the shutdown and concerns they have going forward as schools plan to open for face-to-face instruction in September. Schools are asking for more flexibilities, liability assistance, and a commitment by the Legislature to funding in the 2020-21 school year.
In her testimony to the committee, D.C. Everest Area School District Superintendent Dr. Kristine Gilmore said, “Here’s where you come in. You can help us do what is right for our communities by removing legislative barriers. Not forever, but for now…This includes items like 3rd Friday counts, Bus Ridership counts, mandates around assessments and attendance. Provide us with immunity from those who ask us to provide school, but then try to tie our hands in litigation. Deal with Wisconsin’s inequities – including high quality internet for all citizens. High quality school options for families – no matter where they live. Give us access to retired annuitants (teachers) so we may ask them to work full time during our time of need. We may need virtual teachers for first semester or one year. I believe this group of individuals may be our answer.”
Green Bay Area Public School District Superintendent, Dr. Michelle Langenfeld said, “During this unprecedented time, the District is requesting that you waive student teaching and clinical (therapy) hour requirements for pre-service special education teachers, extend the approval of virtual therapy and Medicaid billing, and provide increased funding for special education services. In addition, more financial resources are needed to provide services for not only special education but also for English Language Learners. For the last few years, the District has transferred more than $30 million a year from Fund 10 to Special Education. With the additional costs that will be incurred to educate students during the pandemic, now more than ever the District needs those resources to ensure we meet the needs of all students.”
As was highlighted in Part II of our series, schools and businesses across the state struggle with access to broadband, and in some places where broadband exists it is not robust enough to allow multiple users at once. Schools and businesses need access to broadband to move to a virtual platform as necessary.
Florence School District Administrator Ben Niehaus said, “I would hope that Wisconsin, even in the midst of these challenging times, makes it a priority to commit to assuring that broadband access is available and convenient as we’ve come to expect with other household utilities. There is no argument, this should be a priority first step as we continue into the uncertainty of the months ahead.”
Lisa Elliot, Superintendent of the School District of Greenfield said, “The impact the virus will have on our workforce for the 2020-21 school year is yet to be seen. It is likely that additional educators and staff will be needed to meet student needs as well as fill in when teachers are out due to illness, needing to care for family members, or because of quarantine. The Legislature could support us in this regard by considering legislation to provide teacher licensing flexibility and removing the barriers to rehiring annuitants.”
Dr. Langenfeld said, “Knowing that we will have staff that will be unable to return to school due to health-related concerns and/or who will be out for extended periods of time (either in quarantine or recovering from COVID), it is important the Legislature consider reducing the 74 day WRS requirement before allowing retired educators to return to work to support students. In addition, we need to eliminate barriers to teacher licensure, and ask that the FORT certification requirement be waived.”
Third Friday Counts, Enrollment, and Funding
There are five factors used to compute equalized aid for school districts: 1.) pupil membership; 2.) shared cost; 3.) equalized property valuation; 4.) the state’s guaranteed valuations; and 5.) the total amount of funding available for distribution. Membership is the number of pupils which can be counted for equalization aid purposes. According to 2019 LFB Informational Paper 24, “For most school districts, membership is the sum of: 1.) the average of the number of pupils enrolled on the third Friday in September and the second Friday in January of the previous school year; and 2.) the full-time equivalent summer enrollment (in the summer prior to the counted year) in academic summer classes or laboratory periods that are for necessary academic purposes, as defined in administrative rule by DPI.”
Not only does the Third Friday in September count impact the membership counts for equalized aid, but revenue limits are based directly on membership counts. According to 2019 LFB Information Paper 12, “A three-year rolling average of a school district’s pupil enrollment is used to calculate the district’s revenue limit. Specifically, the number of pupils is based on the average of a district’s enrollment count taken on the third Friday in September for the current and two preceding school years…Districts can include in their enrollment counts 40% of the full-time equivalent (FTE) summer enrollment in academic summer classes or laboratory periods that are for necessary academic purposes, as defined in administrative rule by DPI.”
School districts are expressing concerns about the possible negative impacts of low summer school enrollment (by choice or because schools had limited offerings this summer) and/or the absence of students on the Third Friday of September count because some parents are hesitant to send students back to school. School administrators are asking the legislature to hold schools harmless for changes in membership during the pandemic.
State Commitment to Budget
July 1 was the start of the new fiscal year, or the start of the second year of the 2019-2021 state budget. Schools planned their school budget based on the amounts provided for in the budget when it was completed and signed in July 2019. School districts have seen increased budgetary demand in the end of the 2019-20 school year as they moved outside the traditional classroom. Those include things like printing costs, technology costs for students and teachers, food service, and PPE and cleaning supplies. School districts are concerned that with the economic damage done to the state budget during the pandemic the state will adjust the second year of the budget in a ‘budget repair bill’ and they will be doing more than they normally budget with less than they budgeted for.
Dr. Lisa Olson, Superintendent of Whitnall School District told the committee, “As we enter into the second year of a biennial budget, we typically are aware of the financial commitment from the state. We are hearing there may be a budget repair bill taken up in the legislature and that it would likely mean a decrease to funding for education. This uncertainty significantly impacts our ability to respond and develop a plan to reopen. We need to know that the financial commitment promised for this upcoming school year will be there. The manner in which we reopen as safely and effectively as possible is contingent upon the resources to do so.”
Dr. Jill Underly, Superintendent of the Pecatonica School District said, “No matter how you approach it, it is going to take financial resources and an investment from the state and federal government to reopen our economy first by reopening our schools safely.”
When the Legislature passed AB-1038 (2019 Act 185) it provided “immunity from civil liability for health care professionals and providers and employees, agents, or contractors of those professionals or providers for death, injury, or damages caused by actions or omissions taken in provided services to address or in response to a 2019 novel coronavirus.”
In June, the Legislative Council published an IssueBrief discussing the financial responsibilities for businesses if a patron becomes ill due to interacting with a business and the use of liability waivers.
During the testimony, several superintendents discussed what liability the schools will have for individuals becoming sick. Niehaus said, “Our legal costs since the onset of the pandemic in HR matters alone are double what these same services were from the beginning of our fiscal year up to the pandemic, as I regularly have to confer for assurance in making critical decisions.”
Special Education Maintenance of Effort
Local Education Agencies (LEA) are required to expend the same amount of local and state funding for special education and related services as it expended in the previous fiscal year. This is referred to as the Maintenance of Effort (MOE). While most schools use IDEA funding, and some have the funds from the 2019-20 to carry into the 2020-21 school year, schools need to pay attention to the amount of local funding used for special education in the new school year as it could impact their MOE requirements.
The Wheeler Report would like to take this opportunity to thank all the individuals who made themselves available for interviews, conference calls, and video chats to discuss K-12 education in Wisconsin during the COVID-19 pandemic.