At its meeting this week, the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education discussed mounting uncertainty for the 2020-2021 school year. Experts are anticipating dramatically reduced state funding for schools next year, and questions remain about whether ELPS schools may need to continue remote-teaching all or some K-12 students come the fall.
This school year will end with a whimper instead of a bang for graduating seniors. Commencement and prom will not go on as scheduled. Administrators are now looking at survey data to consider other forms for honoring the graduating class. Decisions are dependent on forthcoming public health directives.
The annual Kindergarten Round-Up, which usually helps predict the size of the incoming kindergarten class, has also been canceled. Parents of incoming kindergarteners are encouraged to use the district’s online portal or contact the family’s nearest elementary school by telephone for enrollment.
Cuts in state funding might be the worst ever seen
At Monday’s night’s virtual meeting, ELPS Director of Finance Richard Pugh presented the upcoming year’s school budget, reiterating concerns he addressed to the Board’s Finance Committee late last month.
In advance of Monday’s meeting, Pugh recommended that the Board delay its planned June 8 adoption of the 2020-21 budget to June 22. The Board agreed to this.
Much of ELPS funding is dependent on state funding. Schools currently receive approximately $8,000 per student from the state. On February 6, before the pandemic was known to have really hit the U.S., Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed a school budget that would have provided an extra $150 per student in Michigan public schools.
In the initial budget that Pugh had planned pre-pandemic, ELPS would have enjoyed a $374,000 increase in revenue despite the end of certain grants and one-time revenue sources.
Now, the response to the pandemic is rocking the state budget. Stay-at-home orders mean people are spending less money, resulting in a plummeting of sales tax revenue. Layoffs mean falling payroll taxes and massive payouts of unemployment benefits.
Pugh told the Board there is talk that the State of Michigan may experience shortfalls of $1 to $3 billion for this fiscal year and an additional $1 to $4 billion for next.
To deal with the uncertainty, Pugh developed three possible budget scenarios for the upcoming school year while cautioning that budget development is more than ever a work-in-progress.
For Scenario 1, Pugh projected a decrease in funding of $300 per student. Scenario 2 projected a decrease of $500 per student, and Scenario 3, a decrease of $700 per student. In each budget, Pugh also planned for ELPS not receiving previously-expected funding for at-risk students, special education reimbursement, or interest revenue.
In terms of expenditures, Pugh planned for covering all contract agreements while noting that one group has yet to reach a contract agreement.
Each scenario results in a deficit, ranging from $1.4 million to nearly $2.9 million. The February 6 pre-pandemic budget would have operated at a deficit of only $571,000.
ELPS has a healthy fund balance of about $6.6 million and experienced a good year financially for the 2019-2020 academic year. But the upcoming academic year will change that rosy picture.
And the reality could be much worse than even Scenario 3. This week, Bridge magazine reported that schools may face reductions in funding of $2,000 per student, with cuts of 20-25 percent.
At Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Dori Leyko said that the situation is unprecedented. In recent memory, the largest cut of per student funding had been $470 per student.
While Pugh projected covering contract promises, he told the Board that all options were still on the table. Leyko noted that she and Pugh have recently attended numerous meetings on finances, including with union representatives. She explained how the situation is being triaged.
“We have this long laundry list of possibilities,” she told the Board on Monday. “Some things we don’t want to cut,” she said, but cuts would have to be made. She said the administration is “trying to have least impact on staff and staff morale.”
Following Pugh’s presentation, the Board voted in support of purchasing iPads, laptops, and desktops, amounting to $196,000. Trustee Kate Power asked Pugh to clarify that these were being paid out of the technology bond fund and sinking fund, money that could not be used for general purposes.
The Board also recommended approval of the Ingham Intermediate School District’s proposed budget.
Classes in the Fall – where and what?
Currently, ELPS students are in the third week of instruction in their emergency distance learning program. On Friday, schools sent out a survey to families which will be used to tweak the current program and inform decisions for the fall if necessary.
Leyko cautioned the Board that the Michigan Department of Education has yet to provide any guidance on the fall semester.
In response, Board Secretary Chris Martin and President Erin Graham encouraged starting planning now for the possibility of distance or hybrid learning in the fall. Martin summarized the approach this way: “We can hope for the best but still prepare for the worst.”
Martin and Graham both mentioned community concerns over distance learning. Parents have said that they are worried about young children learning to read and high school students planning for the future.
Graham said she believes that community voices are crucial for planning ahead and applauded the use of surveys as a starting point for learning how to improve distance learning, particularly in supporting teachers “to deliver the high quality, rigorous, equitable learning opportunities we strive for.”
Martin reported that he had begun to sift through the emerging research on distance learning during the pandemic, paying particular attention to small-group learning and differentiated lessons that help teachers reach students at varying levels.
Graham echoed her concerns from the Academic and Technology Committee meeting about the District’s emergency no-grade policy. She recommended using the summer to plan for distance learning that would permit awarding letter grades.
Graham reiterated that ELPS was an outlier for awarding grades on a credit/incomplete basis and feared a continuation of that policy would hurt students, particularly those in high school.
The Board’s Policies Committee is now set to meet this Friday at 3 p.m., and some of these issues may come up then. (Find information about how to listen-in and participate here, and note that you must personally email Superintendent Dori Leyko to obtain the log-in passwords.) At Monday’s meeting, the Board also unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Michigan State Capitol Commission to ban firearms at the Lansing building and received an update on the reconstruction of the Districts’ six elementary schools.
Correction, 2 p.m.: This article originally said that students are in Week 4 of their emergency distance learning plan, which is the wording Leyko used at the meeting. The first week of the plan, however, did not include instruction, so we reworded that to clarify that students are in the third week of instruction.