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State actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 forced educators to take extraordinary measures for the protection staff and students while continuing instruction from home.
In Lebanon County, the six public school districts say they managed to make the transition without putting too much strain on their 2019-20 budgets. And, while planning for the coming academic year is tricky — since no one yet is certain what school will look like in the fall — district officials believe they have balanced budgets and can meet the challenges ahead.
Here’s a look at local school budgets, by district.
Annville-Cleona School District
The operating budget in Annville-Cleona School District this past academic year was $25.3 million, according to new superintendent Krista M. Antonis. The district was able to end the year without making changes to the budget due to COVID-19, she said.
For 2020-21, she said, the school board approved a new budget of $26.53 million. To cover the deficit and balance the budget, Antonis said, the board tapped into the district fund balance.
The board also approved a tax rate increase of 1.9%, or .2737 mills.
With that increase, Antonis said, the district will be able to maintain current levels of programming and faculty.
“No significant program cuts were made, there were no reductions to staff, there were no projects deferred, or any other adjustments made,” she said in an email.
Read More: Annville-Cleona staff organize socially distant parade for district families
Antonis also noted the budget did not require any measures to accommodate the possibility of further distance learning, should additional quarantining become necessary in the fall.
“No adjustments were made to accommodate distance learning as the district was properly prepared prior to the pandemic to allow for this flexibility,” she said. “We are planning to utilize grant monies to continue to enhance our distance learning options should additional quarantining be necessary.”
Cornwall-Lebanon School District
Superintendent Philip L. Domencic was not available for comment on this article.
According to an article on LancasterOnline, the board approved a budget totaling $81.6 million, which includes a 1% tax increase. The rate increase will generate about $500,000 in revenue for the district, the article reported.
Amy Rose Wissinger, media relations coordinator for the district, said in an email that the school board did not make any significant cuts to programs or staff in preparing the 2020-21 budget, although the board did defer a turf field replacement project after concluding the current surface is still safe to use.
Eastern Lebanon School District
The 2019-20 budget for Eastern Lebanon School District (ELCO) was $44.82 million, according to superintendent Julia R. Vicente. The district ended the year without adjustments to the budget caused by the COVID-19 crisis, she said.
“We were able to transition to remote/distance learning with little expense,” Vicente explained in an email. “Additionally, with the legislature mandating full pay to school employees through June 30, it changed the budget little. Cleaning and social distancing concerns at the end of the school year were not great because the students, teachers and staff were not attending the school buildings after March 13 for the rest of the school year.”
Read More: Student Views: How the coronavirus has affected ELCO students
The district used the intermediate school building for food distribution through the end of the academic year, she said. Personal protective equipment and supplies for cleaning and sanitizing the building were “not a huge budgetary expense,” she added.
For 2020-21, Vicente said, the ELCO school board in June approved a budget of $45.41 million. They did not tap into capital reserves to balance the budget, she said, because the district “made reductions in March in anticipated new curricular purchases and new staff positions.”
The new budget is 1.3% higher than last year’s, she said, in part because curricular purchases and new staff positions were “reduced or delayed to offset the local revenue reductions from the pandemic.”
The spending plan comes with a 1.75% tax increase, Vicente said, noting it “is the lowest increase since the early 2000s.” No major cuts to the budget were needed, including no impact to current programs, no impact to staffing and no project deferments, she said.
The budget did include some accommodations for the possibility of further distance learning in the fall, she said. The district already has enough iPads for students, she said; the budget allowed ELCO to buy new software along with “more robust use of our current academic software.”
Lebanon School District
Lebanon School District operated in 2019-20 with an operating budget of $79.56 million. Superintendent Arthur Abrom said the district did not need to adjust the budget because “we were able to reallocate resources to focus on increasing our one-to-one technology initiative to better serve students.”
“Since students were required to work from home,” Abrom said in an email, “remote learning was our focus to utilize technology for our older students and provide younger students with packets to continue learning opportunities.”
The 2020-21 budget that was approved in June totals $82.45 million. The tax rate will remain the same for the coming year, he said, and the district has not planned any major cuts to balance spending.
“Our budget maintains current programs and our priority is to focus these resources on those areas that directly impact student learning,” Abrom said.
“Lebanon School District has one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios and operates with a very lean number of staff, so reducing staff is not a viable option” for the district, he added. Also, he said, “we have sped up our mobile learning initiative” so sufficient devices are available for students taking advantage of the district’s online learning programs.
Renovations to the middle school and construction “to alleviate the capacity concerns at the elementary schools” are on hold, he said, “due to the lack of financial support” from Harrisburg.
The district “continues to devote an increasing share of fund balance to a pay-as-you-go approach to address building needs” in light of the state’s withdrawal of funding for capital projects, Abrom said. If the opportunity or need for a building project becomes necessary, he said, the district “has budgeted funds to be used for this purpose.”
Finally, he noted, the district has increased its budgetary reserve to address requirements for personal protective equipment and technology needed “to ensure learning continues safely under any environment as well as provide us flexibility for opportunities to move forward with our building needs.”
Northern Lebanon School District
According to superintendent Gary Messinger, Northern Lebanon School District’s school board approved a 2019-20 budget for $40.23 million, and the district was able to finish the year without making changes because of issues caused by COVID-19.
“Despite lost revenue, we were able to also reduce projected spending and therefore did not need to make changes to the budget,” he explained.
The 2020-21 budget looks pretty similar, he said. The school board in June approved a spending plan totaling $40.25 million.
The budget was balanced, Messinger said, with only minor withdrawals from the fund balance “for several one-time expenses like the resurfacing of our track.”
The spending plan also includes a 2.5% tax increase, he said. Earlier in the year, pre-pandemic, Messinger said the district was eyeing a zero percent increase … but that went out the door when COVID-19 came in.
“We projected a loss of approximately $990,000 in revenue for this year,” Messinger said. “The tax increase in addition to a reduction in spending allowed us to make up for this loss of revenue.”
The superintendent said Northern Lebanon school board members “debated … at length” before approving the tax increase. “It was such a difficult decision to make in today’s economic state,” he said.
He noted that the budget did not require significant cuts to programs, nor did they defer any projects. He did say several positions were open and were not filled to lower personnel costs.
“We took a global approach to reducing our budget,” he said. “Cuts were made in all areas. Each department made adjustments in order to reduce projected expenses. For example, we reduced the amounts spent on new textbooks and professional development for the upcoming year.”
Messinger noted that districts will receive some funding “to be used specifically for COVID-19 expenses.”
“These funds are one-time funds so we will be using them for expenses that are not reoccurring,” he said. “Technology for distance learning is one example of how we will utilize some of these funds.”
Palmyra Area School District
Palmyra Area School District approved a $54.49 million budget for 2019-20, according to superintendent Bernie Kepler.
The pandemic caused an estimated decrease in revenues of $325,000, he said; that was offset by savings of about $370,000 from closing the schools.
For the upcoming academic year, Kepler said the school board approved a budget of $55.13 million, a 1.2% increase.
“This includes one-time federal stimulus grant funds of $619,000, which is earmarked for expenses related to the Health & Safety Plan, Kepler noted; without that, he said, the budget “would have essentially been flat.” The board withdrew $640,000 from its capital reserves to balance the budget, he added, leaving a projected fund balance of $2.8 million, or 5.1% of expenditures.
The district also increased the tax rate by 1.84%, he said — to 15.643 mills.
Balancing the budget meant making $425,000 in “deep cuts to department budgets,” Kepler said in an email — “including delays to technology hardware replacement, library books, textbook renewals, elimination of new equipment purchases, student activity travel, classroom supplies, athletics supplies (and the) Apartment program at Londonderry Village for Life Skills students.” A transfer to the district’s Capital Projects Funds of $416,577, intended to replenish the fund following the completion of projects at Northside and the new athletic complex, was cut.
Read More: PASD scrambles to cut budget in wake of COVID-19 financial impact
No faculty members lost their jobs, Kepler said, but staffing levels were cut by attrition rather than layoffs. Positions that won’t be filled this year include elementary orchestra teacher, half-time high school English/half-time high school special education teacher, school police officers, supervisor of technology and several aide and support positions. A plan to increase staffing due to growth — including a full-time nurse, an additional special education teacher and a high school business teacher — was also cut.
In anticipation that the 2020-21 school year might require additional accommodations to the pandemic, Palmyra is using the $619,000 federal grant to add 1.5 positions to Cougar Academy, the district’s cyber school program, and buy hardware and software needed for distance learning, as well as making “a substantial investment” in supplies to sanitize facilities and stock up on personal protective gear for the staff.
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