Layoffs Specter Spurs Schools, Colleges to Seek More Federal Aid

The coronavirus pandemic is driving up K-12 school costs, including for nutrition, online learning, and special education, prompting educators to plead for aid from Congress.

Schools’ finances may be in for increased pain in coming months, when states that have taken big hits to tax revenue project their budgets for the year ahead.

“Districts are bracing themselves for what could potentially be cuts to personnel in a variety of fashions. It could be layoffs. It could be a reduction in work days,” said Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, superintendent of Placer County schools in California. “They’re preparing for the worst.”

Funding cuts could lead to more than 275,000 teachers being laid off at big-city school districts without more federal aid, a group of superintendents warned Congressional leaders Tuesday.

Lawmakers provided $30 billion for education relief in the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) last month. But before that money makes it out the door, the expected losses for colleges and K-12 schools harmed by the pandemic have already dwarfed the aid in the law, education groups say.

National K-12 school groups are seeking more than $200 million in another round of coronavirus relief legislation, including $12 billion for low-income schools and $13 billion for special education services.

Colleges want another $47 billion in federal aid to offset the costs of new online instruction and looming state budget cuts.

The CARES Act was a good first step, but states and schools need more help soon to avoid draconian cuts, Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor-HHS and Education said. “Now is the time for the federal government to support our communities financially to get through this pandemic.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor-HHS and Education, said it was too early to address specifics in another relief package. In a radio interview this month, he said there were bound to be needs the CARES Act didntt fully address.

“There was no way we could put a package together that quickly, though we needed to put it together that quickly, and have not left some gaps,” Blunt said. “And we need to fill those gaps.”

Photographer: Travis Dove/Bloomberg
Work stations are seen at a repair center classroom inside the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, two repurposed tobacco warehouses, in South Boston, Va.

Budget Crunch

Federal funding is typically 10%-12% of revenue for most school districts and state revenue on average makes up almost half of total revenues for K-12 schools. The pandemic-generated drop in state and local revenue, as millions have been thrown out of work, will squeeze districts across the country, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

“The economy may slow down but that doesn’t mean students will slow down when they show up for classes,” Ellerson Ng said.

At Highline Public Schools in West Seattle, the district is losing about $2 million on nutrition services as it provides free breakfast and lunch to any child under 18.

The Long Branch Public Schools district in New Jersey has spent $250,000 so far on tablets for students to connect with instructors from home. And school leaders say more spending in technology will be necessary if remote teaching continues.

But the biggest worries for district planners are driven by state budget numbers that loom weeks from now.

In New York, schools have been put on notice that they could see anywhere from a 20% to 50% reduction in state aid in next year’s budget. That would mean thousands of layoffs at districts in the state, said Jason Andrews, superintendent of Windsor Central School District in Upstate New York.

“It’s a huge concern,” he said.

Costs Pile Up for Colleges

Colleges and universities that have barely recovered from the last recession have faced many of the same immediate financial pressures from the pandemic.

At Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, more than 1,700 courses were moved online almost overnight last month. That’s tested the teaching capacity of instructors and the ability of the commuter college’s wireless infrastructure.

Pam Eddinger, Bunker Hill’s president, said the $8.3 million in CARES Act funds the college is set to receive will help shore up virtual support services such as academic advising that students would previously get by visiting campus. Two-year colleges were among the most under funded institutions before the pandemic began, she said.

“The outbreak has thrown into high relief the inequities that have always been there,” Eddinger said.

Carlos Santiago, commissioner of higher education for Massachusetts, said two-year colleges have lost out under CARES Act funding formulas that awarded college aid based on the number of full-time students.

“Our community colleges are attended by and large by part-time students,” he said.

Four-year residential colleges in the state that have already refunded room and board costs to many students are also looking at big losses if they’re not able to fill dorms in the fall.

In other states, the immediate picture is even more grim. New Jersey has already pulled back $138 million from state colleges and universities, forcing hiring freezes and pay cuts. And the Nevada higher education system is preparing for $124 million in cuts to state funding.

Colleges face unknown costs even as they ponder what a fall semester might look like, said Doug Shackelford, dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“How will we open in the fall? Will we open in the fall?” he said. “Is it possible to have a residential campus without some form of treatment or vaccine?”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com; Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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