Budget to protect programs with relief funds

By ‘leaning heavily’ on ESSER money, School District plans to add positions, increase salaries
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

The inflation rate has topped 8% and per-pupil state aid for schools is not budging, yet the Grafton School District’s proposed 2022-23 budget calls for adding the equivalent of nearly six full-time teaching positions and paying educators and other district employees more.

The key to the spending plan, which the School Board took a first look at last week, is the use of $998,190 in federal pandemic relief money to balance the budget.

The use of a portion of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding the district will receive makes possible an increase in spending of $906,929, or 3.7%, that will help pay for the equivalent of 5.7 new teaching positions and raises of 4.1% for teachers and administrators and 4.7% for educational assistants and support staff members.

“All this in a bid to continue to attract and retain the quality staff we need to provide services,” Director of Business Services Topher Adams told the board during its May 23 meeting.

The district’s investment in its employees — a reflection of its commitment to providing high quality programs for students, Adams said — comes at a time when public school districts are faced by no shortage of challenges.

“Inflationary pressures are real. Real inflation is over 8% right now,” Adams said. “We have been able to limit our expenditure increase to less than half that all the while continuing to provide quality programming and additional staff.

“This is all happening while there has been no increase in spendable revenue from the state for two consecutive years. There are no more monies being provided to cover this increased cost of education.

“Therefore, we’re leaning heavily on available ESSER funds to balance this budget.”

Among the challenges assumed in the proposed budget are a 9.9% increase in the health insurance premium and a $43,388 decrease in the district’s revenue limit due to the loss of an enrollment exemption.

Even with building and department budgets held flat, the spending plan assumes the district’s spendable revenue will decrease by $13,388.

Another challenge for not only the Grafton School District but school systems throughout Wisconsin is that as the cost of special education increases, the amount paid by the state, which in Grafton’s case is less then a quarter of the total, has remained flat.

Of the roughly $5 million the district plans to spend on special education next school year, it will pay $3.1 million while the state will contribute $1.2 million.

“As a state, we have the lowest (special education) reimbursement rate in the country,” Adams said. “That means that those funds (not reimbursed by the state) come from our general operating budget.”

Another challenge shared by public school districts throughout the state is the increasing number of children who are eligible for and use Wisconsin’s voucher programs to pay for private school tuition.

When students participate in Private School Choice Programs, their resident public school districts lose state aid.

State levy limit rules allow districts to increase their tax levies by amounts equal to the lost aid, which means school vouchers have neutral impacts on budgets. They do, however, increase the cost of education born by taxpayers.

The Grafton School District’s Private School Choice levy will increase by $245,000 next school year to a total of $650,000.

For all the challenges the budget reflects, it uses some conservative estimates that leave room for hope that the district’s financial picture will look better in fall.

For instance, it assumes that all 16 employees who will be newly eligible for health insurance benefits next year will choose the most expensive family option.

“Of course we know that won’t happen,” Adams said.

And a health insurance premium increase that is even slightly smaller than the anticipated 9.9% would be worth thousands of dollars to the district.

In addition, either an increase or decrease in enrollment could help the district financially in the form of an increase in the revenue limit or a declining enrollment exemption.

Regardless, ESSER funding will remain a key part of the 2022-23 budget, and Adams noted that the district is taking a highly calculated approach to claiming federal pandemic relief money. The district, he said, plans to claim those funds in years when it has offsetting costs in the form of debt payments and not to claim them in years it doesn’t. Doing otherwise could make the district wealthier under state revenue limit calculations and shift the burden of paying for education to local taxpayers.

“Our claiming strategy is to minimize any negative impact on property taxes,” Adams said.

The district is also mindful of what is being referred to as the fiscal cliff, the precipice that awaits school systems who rely on temporary ESSER funds and have no way to make up for them after they’re exhausted.

Adams said administrators hope state legislators are also mindful of the financial hardship that will befall school districts when federal pandemic relief money runs out and account for that by increasing stagnant state aid.

“We’ll be looking for that next (state) biennial budget to provide some relief from having two years of zero-dollar increases to the per-pupil amount in the revenue limit,” he said.

Barring that, the district has additional ESSER funds that can be used in future budgets as well as a healthy $4.8 million fund balance it can draw on.

The district could also ask taxpayers for permission to exceed the district’s revenue limit, Adams said.

“And there is always the option of an operating referendum where we would ask the taxpayer to increase our revenue limit to cover costs moving forward,” he said.

The board will approve the budget later this month ahead of the beginning of the 2022-23 school year on July 1.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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