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Schools prepare to tighten budgets as pandemic aid ends
Staffing cuts, larger class sizes and delaying purchase of new curriculum planned as school districts use the last of their emergency funding
CEDAR RAPIDS — Truman Early Learning Center, a full-day preschool program with before- and after-school care, opened last fall in the Cedar Rapids Community School District with the help of short-term pandemic relief funding — which is set to expire in September 2024.
After two years of the school being funded by federal relief dollars — the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief — the district will have to resort to state funding, which currently funds preschool at half the usual per-pupil rate because preschoolers typically are in centers only part of the day.
Karla Hogan, Cedar Rapids schools’ executive director of business services, said the district is “banking” — or saving — state funds it is receiving for preschool this year and next to continue budgeting for full-day programming for the 2024-25 school year.
“We keep trying to move it down the road, and maybe the Legislature will change and we’ll get 1.0 funding” for preschool, she said.
Interim Superintendent Art Sathoff said advocating for preschool to be fully-funded by the state will be a legislative priority for the district. The Iowa’s Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program provides funding for free, half-day preschool to 4-year-olds, which can be a barrier for working families who are unable to find child care before or afterward, or transportation for their child, some educators say.
Many Iowa schools are facing similar funding challenges as the expiration date for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief approaches Sept. 30, 2024. Some school districts are reporting their funding will run out as early as this summer, and as funds dwindle, school officials are having conversations about what they can afford.
The Cedar Rapids school district received a total of $49.9 million in federal pandemic relief money since 2020 to help with recovery of learning and to fund mitigation efforts for COVID-19. At least 20 percent of the funds had to be spent on addressing learning loss due to the extended and repeated school closures and remote learning during the height of the pandemic.
Almost $5 million was spent by the district on acceleration and innovation learning, which includes early childhood extension — or preschool — over three years, according to the district’s website. This also included funding for the district’s new magnet high school called City View Community, which is opening this fall.
A portion of these funds helped the district create new positions to help with learning loss, which means 66 positions — just over 2 percent of the district’s employees — will not continue in their current roles after this school year. Hogan said these employees were aware they were hired under two-year contracts, and are being encouraged to apply for other open positions in the district.
Many of these employees helped address equity gaps in reading and math, social-emotional learning competencies, improvements in instructional practices in the classrooms and tutoring students.
Other programs and services funded with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief aid includes summer school, before- and after-school programming, tutoring services, curriculum reviews and implementation, professional learning for educators and mental health services.
A total of $5 million in the district was spent on technology, including getting devices into students’ hands at the beginning of the pandemic so they could continue learning from home. Another $3 million was spent on personal protective equipment and facility maintenance to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
‘Most definitely’ budget challenges to come
There are “most definitely” challenges that come with the pandemic relief funds expiring, Iowa City schools chief financial officer Leslie Finger said, including making budget adjustments over the next two years.
The Iowa City Community School District received $41.5 million in ESSER allocations over three periods.
The Iowa City district added more teaching staff to classrooms to decrease class sizes and help students learn during the pandemic. Officials are working to place them in vacant positions in the district.
In the 2020-21 academic year, Iowa City schools lost more than 200 students, but it did not make staffing adjustments, Finger said. Enrollment started to bounce back the following year,
“We used the funds to pay teachers instead of making reductions,” Finger said.
Some of these positions now may be open because of resignations and retirements, Finger said. While the district hires about 70 to 100 teachers each summer, Finger said there will be “a pretty significant reduction” in new hires this year because of this.
“We want to do this with no loss of jobs” for district employees, Finger said.
The goal is to reduce the number of positions available by about 4 percent in each category such as teachers, paraeducators and administrators, Finger said.
“We’re returning to the same staffing levels we were pre-pandemic,” Finger said. “We knew that when we went in. One of the things we communicated to our building administrators was this will give you some relief in terms of class sizes when these dollars are available.”
One way the district is alleviating some upcoming financial challenges is postponing purchasing a new math curriculum, Finger said. Iowa City schools routinely review curriculum every eight to 10 years, and the math program was scheduled to have new material for the 2023-24 school year. Delaying this for a year will save the district about $1.5 million, Finger said.
Smaller schools invest in one-time costs
While the Iowa City district is delaying some new curriculum purchases, the College Community School District in Cedar Rapids used the federal funds to purchase new English Language Learner and math curriculum ahead of schedule.
College Community also used the funds to add additional teaching staff to classrooms to decrease class sizes, purchase technology, add school nurses and custodial staff, upgrade heating and air conditioning systems to improve air circulation and purchase personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.
“We’ve been ‘plan-ful’ to make sure we’re not falling off a cliff,” College Community Superintendent Doug Wheeler said.
Christie VanWey, business manager for the Marion Independent School District, said the majority of its funds were spent on adding air conditioning to the high school. Of the $3.3 million Marion Independent received in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, almost $2 million was used for the air conditioning project.
Marion Independent also updated its reading curriculum with the money.
The Mount Vernon Community School District also spent the majority of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds on one-time costs, including technology, improving cleaning and safety measures and temporary substitute teaching staff.
“Those worried about the (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) cliff are the districts who had money to spend on expanding staff and services in a way we could not,” Mount Vernon Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said.
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