CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus may financially impact Eastern Iowa schools for years

Hiring, new curriculum and programs possibly sidelined for now

Siblings Alex (left) and Pyper Danly pose for a photo Aug. 31 on the first day of school at Prairie View Elementary in C
Siblings Alex (left) and Pyper Danly pose for a photo Aug. 31 on the first day of school at Prairie View Elementary in Cedar Rapids. Alex was starting fourth grade, and Pyper first grade. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

School districts trying to meet the foreseen expenses of the coronavirus pandemic — including purchasing personal protective equipment and creating and supporting online learning — may see their bottom lines affected for years.

Although Iowa K-12 schools received a portion of $71.6 million in federal CARES Act funding allocated to cover some of their unexpected costs of COVID-19, many Eastern Iowa schools say it’s not enough to meet the increased expenses this school year — much less make up for what some see as a decade of underfunding education.

“Schools in Iowa would be in a better spot to handle this crisis if we hadn’t spent the last decade inadequately funding schools,” said Doug Wheeler, superintendent of the College Community School District.

The district, which recently came off a four-year hiring freeze, may be looking at implementing another one in the near future, he said.

College Community received $340,000 in CARES funding, but that barely puts a dent into the district’s $67 million annual operating budget, Wheeler said.

“Luckily, we’re in a really good financial position where we can ride that out, but training staff in new mitigation strategies and all that extra stuff will have budgetary impacts down the road,” he said.

The growing district was beginning to look at new programs for students — including adding an agriculture program this year. Now, Wheeler said, it may need to delay other new programs.

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“The financial impacts will lead to difficult choices,” Wheeler said. “There’s less discretionary funding to add programming and hire new teachers to offer that programming.”

The biggest challenge the Iowa City Community School District is facing is the human capital that was expended to prepare for an unprecedented school year, said Leslie Finger, Iowa City schools director of budget and finance.

Administrators are “working around the clock” to ensure students a safe return to on-site learning, and to prepare online curriculum.

Student enrollment in the district, which is down slightly this year, will have a minimal effect on the bottom line. Enrollment went from 14,278 as of Oct. 1, 2019, to 14,125 as of last week.

However, the district is seeing an uptick in home-school enrollment, with 260 students being home-schooled compared with 149 last year.

The $1.6 million Iowa City schools received from the CARES Act has helped it purchase online curriculum, hot spots for students without internet and face masks and shields for students and school staff.

Last month, the school board approved an additional item in the budget of $500,000 for cleaning supplies, plexiglass barriers and signs to direct students in the hallways and remind them to wash their hands.

Finger said the district has some reserve funds, but it will likely become a “trade-off” as the district moves forward.

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“Do we have less paraprofessionals? Do we change the way we staff certain programs to recover from this? Those decisions are all to be determined,” Finger said.

Finger said the last 10 years has seen the lowest rates of funding for Iowa schools in 50 years.

Each year, districts have less money to work with and less money to put away in a reserve fund, he said.

“The bottom line is when the state provides low amounts of annual funding increases, it continues to compound and challenge us in our decision making,” Finger said.

Linn-Mar Community School District Superintendent Shannon Bisgard said although the district doesn’t start school this year until Sept. 24, it is about $300,000 over budget for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

The district has used almost all of its CARES Act funds and additional expenses will come out of the general budget, he said, “which comes at the expense of other things like curriculum.”

“We’re spending more money on the virus than we’re receiving from the government for that, and that will have an impact on programs or staffing,” Bisgard said.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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All donations are tax-deductible.