In the wake of a pandemic that has triggered unpredictable costs for school districts across the country, the Seattle School Board approved $1.3 billion in spending for the upcoming school year at its Wednesday meeting.
The budget passed with four yes votes and three abstentions from Board members Lisa Rivera-Smith, Eden Mack and Leslie Harris. Mack and Harris questioned the accuracy of the budget, given uncertainty about how many students will re-enroll in the fall, and what additional costs may arise from the district’s negotiations with its teachers union over reopening schools.
“I’m rather concerned that we are not set up effectively for the current crisis and what is actually going to happen come fall,” Mack said.
District officials said they’re confident they can flex the 2020-21 budget to meet the anticipated costs associated with reopening in the fall, about $15 million. The district will also receive more than $10 million from the federal CARES Act.
With a recent state economic forecast showing a considerable ($8.8 billion) revenue decline associated with the pandemic, tough decisions could be ahead for school districts around the state. But it’s not clear when or how. Gov. Jay Inslee this week suggested the state Legislature would not need to convene an emergency session this summer to balance the budget. Districts were anticipating that a legislative session would have meant immediate cuts for education, which alone makes up more than half of Washington state’s budget.
The regular legislative calendar begins in January 2021.
“I think we’re in a good position,” said JoLynn Berge, the district’s chief financial officer.
The budget document itself, crafted mostly before the pandemic, doesn’t make much note of where coronavirus-related adjustments to spending will happen. In meetings leading up to the vote, the district presented some options to delay the purchase of some curriculum materials or infrastructure work on school buildings, but those proposals weren’t detailed in the budget that passed Wednesday.
School district budgets are notoriously speculative, and can deviate from actual spending by millions of dollars.
But the 2020-21 budget, $1.04 billion for operations and $255 million for construction costs, breaks a several-year streak: In recent years the district has projected more and more spending on capital and operations. This upcoming school year’s projection of $1.3 billion is slightly less than last year’s, $1.4 billion. (The actual spending figures for 2019-20 aren’t finalized yet.)
The district is planning to save about $15 million in the upcoming year for emergency costs.
Like all other years, most of the money will be spent on teacher salaries, which automatically increase every year because of bargained raises. The district is also planning to use unspent money from its technology levies to pay for iPads and laptops for younger students to use for distance learning. In April, a Seattle Times investigation found the district had critical delays in spending millions in taxpayer money dedicated to technology — including a 2016 levy with $16 million earmarked for student devices, which left the district unprepared for remote learning.
The district projects that keeping schools clean will be relatively affordable. Based on the 2020-21 operating budget, the district expects to spend about $20,000 per student total. SPS officials estimate that responding to the coronavirus will cost around $15 million, about $277 dollars per student.
The district’s surveys so far show that the majority of families would like to return to in-person instruction for at least some time.
A graphic presented at a recent meeting broke down some of the costs, including:
- $11 million for extra custodial staff to clean schools
- $1.3 million for hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes across schools
- $543,000 for disposable masks for students