ALEXANDRIA — As Alexandria Community Schools Superintendent Melissa Brisco planned the consolidation of the elementary school with the intermediate school over the past couple of years, she anticipated cost saving by being able to reduce custodial staff.
But the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down schools in Madison County and surrounding communities starting around spring break in March, changed all that. The custodian will be needed after all for the new regimen of daily disinfecting that will have to take place daily to keep the novel coronavirus at bay.
“We’re adding hours to our elementary nursing position, which was 32 hours but now will be 35 hours a week,” she said.
These are just some of the budget busters Alexandria will face as it prepares to bring students back into the buildings in early August.
Alexandria is one of many public and private districts and schools in the county, state and nation where officials hope to resume in-person classes.
In addition to the normal costs of maintaining buildings, transporting students and supplying tools for the 2020-21 school year, districts and schools face many additional costs to ensure the safety of students and staff. That includes the purchase of more than the usual cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and the hiring of additional staff.
“Every decision we make along the way impacts the budget,” Brisco said. “Just the amount of hand sanitizer that we’re going to have to have on hand is mind-boggling. The bottom line is we’re going to buy it whether we have the money or not.”
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced last week that school funding will not be cut for next year. But that just means districts can cover the existing costs and not necessarily the additional funding necessary to put in place staff, supplies and equipment necessary for the safest possible reopening of schools.
“We know where we are financially if everything stays the same. But we also know nothing is going to stay the same,” Brisco said.
In addition, the governor has pledged not to penalize schools regardless of the number of students who opt for virtual education. Under normal circumstances, the state contributes only 85% per student who take virtual rather than in-person classes.
For now, public and private schools are relying on federal funding provided through the CARES Act, which provided individual stimulus money, expanded unemployment and loans for small businesses, to cover the additional costs.
There is some funding for schools contained in the federal HEROES Act, a follow up to the CARES Act that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, but the legislation, to date, has not been approved by the U.S. Senate. Even if it is, there are no guarantees that provisions contained in the current version will survive for electronic devices, PPE, and cleaning equipment.
Anderson Community Schools interim Superintendent Joe Cronk said the district already has used about $1 million in CARES Act money.
“I would imagine we will spend at least that much again before the start of school on additional preparations and equipment needed to open school,” he said. “There is no money to hire additional staff, we are on a soft hiring freeze right now, because there are so many unknowns going into the fall.”
Even with some state and federal backing, Cronk said ACS needs to take a conservative route forward because there are far too many unknowns, such as the number of potential recurrences of local epidemics before a vaccine or adequate treatment for COVID-19 is developed.
The superintendents also reported that even if students aren’t in the buildings and all engaged in virtual classes, there are ongoing expenses.
“Costs of staff would remain the same, virtual or not, and cost savings to the buildings are dependent on the weather, but there could be very minimal facility costs savings on heating and cooling,” Cronk said.
Almost no one else, however, including South Madison Superintendent Joe Buck, is able to give even an estimate of how much reopening will add to their budgets.
“As we work through the comprehensive reentry plans for each building, it will become clearer what the additional costs will be due to the pandemic,” he said. “Any additional costs will be considered as the budget process is completed throughout the summer and early fall.”
Additional costs aside, school officials, like those of other governmental bodies, feared shortfalls in property tax distributions as residents unemployed because of the pandemic are unable to pay.
“Property tax caps have been an ongoing concern for all school corporations, but COVID-19 shouldn’t create any additional circuit breaker losses,” Buck said. “Collection shortfalls are a concern, although the first tax settlement that was just issued was much better than anticipated.”
The budgets of private and parochial schools like Liberty Christian generally are a function of what the market can bear and whether students are eligible for vouchers. Though Liberty Christian does not receive any appreciable funding from the state, the school was eligible for money distributed through the CARES Act.
“Liberty Christian is committed to providing an excellent educational experience while practicing healthy and sustainable financial practices,” said Liberty Christian athletic director and spokesman Jason Chappell.
He said the board completed its basic reentry plan on Thursday. The plan includes an isolation room at each building to minimize contact between nonsymptomatic students and those who appear to become symptomatic with COVID-19 as they wait for their parents.
Additional costs include the purchase of software and procedures to prescreen students and staff as they enter the buildings, the hiring of a part-time nurse at each building, and the installation of an antimicrobial floor at the high school, Chappell said.
“Shifting our focus from traditional to virtual settings is an ongoing process and will take more development, and we can’t really put a price tag on that yet,” he said. “We are developing a virtual model with contingencies, an ongoing process with many variables. Until those variables become realized a true price cannot be predicted.”
As with the public schools districts, Liberty Christian officials must remain flexible, Chappell said.
“Our finance committee, board, and leadership have established a budget for a number of enrollment possibilities, including virtual and traditional models of school,” he said. “These budgets are in constant measurement and remain flexible to adjust to new variables.”