St. Clair Shores schools say federal money helping budgets amid uncertainty

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 2, 2021

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Over the past year, schools have had to adapt to changing circumstances like never before.

Heading into the 2021-22 school year may be no different, although local districts believe they will have adequate funding to help them adapt this time.

Lake Shore Public Schools Superintendent Joseph DiPonio said schools face the issue they deal with every year when approving their budgets.

“We wait on the state,” he said. “We build our budgets and boards approve those budgets prior to having the key components that are necessary to actually, really build (the budget).”

The Lake Shore Board of Education was set to consider the recommended 2021-22 budget June 29, after the Sentinel went to press.

“The variables that are always key to budgeting are not known until later on down the road,” DiPonio said, referring to the foundation allowance and number of students the district will have.

Lakeview Public Schools Superintendent Karl Paulson said an additional factor is that schools may still be receiving extra money for the 2020-21 school year from the state.

“We know there are still federal funds that the state has not distributed that would have been promised. We have part of those funds included in the current year budget and in anticipation (that) the rest of those funds would be assumed to be in the next year’s budget,” he said.

Both districts have healthy fund balances, according to the superintendents, which makes riding out the budget fluctuations a little easier. The state of Michigan’s budget year runs from Oct. 1-Sept. 30, while school fiscal years are from July 1-June 30.

That’s why a healthy fund balance is so important.

“That kind of gives us a little bit of a cushion, although we try to make sure we don’t have to utilize that fund balance to fill gaps,” DiPonio said. “If you didn’t know what you were going to make, annually, until February, March or May, you’re going to be very conservative in how you’re going to spend that money.”

School leaders say federal relief funds put them in a unique position for the 2021-22 school year, however.

DiPonio said Lake Shore has received, and anticipates receiving, more money that will enable the district to offer extra programming for students. The district began offering free after-school activities in the spring and is offering summer academic and enrichment activities that wouldn’t have been possible without the extra federal dollars.

“There’s an absolute need with our kids, especially coming out of the pandemic, to re-engage kids and get them back to where they will be ready to re-enter school in the fall,” he said. “We have to be prepared to supplement the learning of children and fill the gaps that have been created.”

DiPonio said Lake Shore students did “pretty good” on standardized tests in math and reading, but the social emotional aspects of being apart from one another need to be addressed. Lake Shore will use federal dollars to pay for social workers and additional support staff, and to oversee efforts of recovery and student assistance.

“Our budget reflects all of these additional efforts to move kids along and give them the (tools to) not just survive the pandemic but to thrive in its wake,” he said.

Lake Shore has budgeted for an increase in staffing to make sure class sizes are small next school year and is contemplating offering free 4-year-old preschool.

“With these federal dollars, this might be a unique opportunity for us to explore things that can obviously alter the path to the benefit of a child,” he said. “We’re in a unique position to reopen schools, and we would be missing the boat if we didn’t do it in a fashion that really dials in on the social emotional aspect.”

DiPonio said he hoped state lawmakers would see, over the course of the next school year, what is possible for schools to do with adequate funding. He said that, should the funding revert to prior levels in a few years, the district will adjust accordingly, but stockpiling the money defeats the purpose of receiving it.

“The money is to get kids back and make them whole from what has occurred,” he said.

South Lake Schools has been able to reduce its deficit with help from COVID relief funds, said Frank Thomas, director of business and human resources for the district.

“We’re going to be able to use this, hopefully, in the 21-22 budget to be able to get out of deficit, so that’s exciting,” he said.

The district has been in deficit for about the past six years and was able to reduce the deficit of about $2 million to about $500,000 by the end of the 2020-21 year. It hopes to wipe the remainder of the deficit out by June 30, 2022.

South Lake Board of Education approved the 2021-22 budget June 16. Looking ahead to the next school year, Thomas said even with most COVID restrictions eliminated, they still anticipate there may be families that may not want to return to face-to-face learning. Since enrollment is so important to South Lake, he said, they’re trying to be flexible in how they provide students with an education.

That is making the technology department happy, he said.

“They’ve got so many new devices, so many more connections to the internet. Families have more connections,” with WiFi hotspots in school parking lots or provided through WOW, he said. “That’s being provided through the coronavirus grants.”

Thomas said the district has provided all students with iPads, and the grant money has enabled the replacement of all teacher desktop computers with laptops and provided for the installation of instructional devices in the classroom.

South Lake’s director of technology is also the curriculum director for the district, so Thomas said they are hoping to hire additional help in the technology department to help that employee service and manage all of the devices now being used in the district.

“We’ve got funding mechanisms planned to be in place to carry us forward and take care of this,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to get some of the people we’ve eliminated in the past.”

Lakeview is predicting a small growth in the fund balance for the current year. Combined with a solid fund balance from previous years, Paulson said the district is in a good financial condition, enabling it to ride the waves of news from Lansing — first to prepare for a cut in per-pupil funding before the 2020-21 school year and now to prepare for potentially more money per student for the 2021-22 year.

“The revenue estimates are explosively larger,” Paulson said. “It’s quite a bit more than people could ever dream.”

He said that if the state used some of the money to properly fund the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, that would greatly help local public schools who pay into the system.

“We can very accurately estimate our wages, reasonably accurately estimate our benefit costs,” for a total of about 85% of the district’s expenditures each year, he said. “One of the unknowns, which is significant, is the state retirement cost.

“If they can help us reduce that cost, that’s a big one going forward.”

Federal grant funding focused on learning loss would be spent on reading and math specialists the district already has in place, he said.

“We will go forward, knowing we built a balanced budget. We expect that it could be better than what it is,” Paulson said, explaining that they used the low range of figures provided by the state and for pupil counts. “We estimated on the low range of everything, like we always do, and our expenses we’re pretty confident on. If we have additional revenue and we can give people raises starting in January, we will.”

That flexibility is what has helped the district build up its fund balance to approximately $6.2 million at the end of the 2021-22 school year, he said. The Lakeview Board of Education approved its budget June 15.

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