Most districts are hoping budget surpluses this year can carry them through difficulties next year
CLARK COUNTY — The immediate financial outlook for Clark County school districts facing the coronavirus pandemic is good news, but the next budget cycle at the state level could be grim.
“Some of the early estimates are a shortfall in the range of $5 to $8 billion,” said Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steven Webb at a virtual board meeting this week. “That’s billion with a ‘B.’”
Just over half of the state’s general fund budget is tied up in basic K-12 education. While it remains unclear how public school funding would be impacted by state budget cuts, given the 2012 state Supreme Court decision in the McCleary case on the duty to fully fund basic education, there are other places that could see cuts.
“Levy equalization is not considered basic education,” Webb noted. “Unlike other property poor districts here in Southwest Washington, we have exposure there.”
According to Brett Blechschmidt, the Vancouver School District’s chief financial officer, a cut to levy equalization could hit Vancouver Public School’s budget by as much as $7 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
The district is in a somewhat unique position, having passed a supplemental maintenance and operations levy last year aimed at closing a projected $4.3 million budget deficit due to student enrollment declines.
While student enrollment has dipped, Blechschmidt said, it wasn’t as severe as anticipated. Ultimately, the district expects to see that projected budget shortfall largely evaporate. That gives them the ability to potentially bank the extra revenue as a hedge against future funding declines.
“It would be our recommendation at this point to — if that $4.3 million improvement at the bottom line were to materialize — that we be prudent with that and set it aside amongst two different reserves that look to present some challenges for us in the future,” Blechschmidt said.
That would include a proposed $2.3 million for an employment stabilization fund, which could account for salary increases and help to prevent layoffs in the event of a funding decrease. The rest would go to cover anticipated cost increases as the district finalizes transitioning to providing health insurance through the School Employee Benefits Board (SEBB) program.
Webb noted that the district avoided massive layoffs during the economic recession in 2008-10 by using an employment stabilization fund set up ahead of time.
“Of course, we had to reduce positions and expenses,” Webb told the board, “but we achieved those kinds of cost savings through vacancies and retirements.”
Evergreen Schools Superintendent Mike Merlino says their initial budget projection shows the shutdown may increase their ending fund balance from an anticipated $22 to $23 million, up to $26 or $27 million. That is due to some cost savings realized during the closure of the schools.
Merlino said his district also intends to bank any additional budget surplus as a hedge against potential impacts from the state level.
“I think it would be unwise for us to think that we’re not going to be affected by this size of a shortfall in some way,” said Merlino during a board meeting on Tuesday. “And, honestly, if there are ways for us to save money as much as possible, at this point, we’re doing that to try to drive our fund balance up as much as we can so that there’s more money available to protect jobs.”
Districts are also anticipating some funding from the CARES Act approved by Congress, of which Washington state received approximately $200 million.
Battle Ground Superintendent Mark Ross said his district anticipates receiving up to $1.5 million of that money, but the funding is narrow in focus.
“It really is for the reimbursement of COVID expenses, like the masks, cleaners, things that we’re ordering to make our schools safe,” Ross said during a school board meeting on Zoom this week. “And it might be used for some sort of new technology.”
As of now, the district anticipates a balanced budget for this year. A budget work session is scheduled for June 22.