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Costs of Covid Weigh Heavily on School Districts

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 08:42
Plexiglas barriers are used at the East Hampton Middle School in classrooms and the cafeteria, above, to help stop the spread of Covid-19.
Charles Soriano

As Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone continues to blast Washington, D.C., lawmakers for inaction on a Covid-19 assistance plan that could help municipalities, one of the impacts of that lag is that taxpayers in public school districts are already footing the bill for the rising costs of preventing the virus's spread in classrooms and hallways.

Almost across the board on the South Fork, schools have been spending from their rainy-day savings accounts -- which are formally called "unassigned fund balances" -- to pay for personal protective equipment (P.P.E.), Covid-safe appliances like touchless faucets and paper towel dispensers for bathrooms, thermometers to take students' temperatures, Chromebook computers for remote learning, and hiring more teachers, custodians, and support staff.

But those unassigned fund balances are a finite pot of money, administrators explained during interviews over the past two weeks. Budgets are otherwise in the hands of the taxpayers each year, taxpayers who may already be cash-strapped because of the pandemic. 

"Where are the funds going to come from to sustain this?" said Robert Hauser, the Bridgehampton School District superintendent, who added that his district has already spent about $800,000 on costs related to Covid-19. There will still be some of that rainy-day money left over, but not as much as the $1.1 million Bridgehampton started with at the beginning of the school year.

To bring back all of its students in kindergarten through sixth grade, Bridgehampton hired five new teachers. It also had to hire more bus monitors to take students' temperatures before they get on the bus each day. Bridgehampton even hired another school nurse -- not for itself, but for the Ross School's Lower School campus nearby, which is back in full-time use because of the pandemic. State law requires public schools to lay out the money for nurses for private schools within their borders, though there is a process for reimbursement later on.

The Springs School District began the year with a $250,000 head start in its budget dedicated to Covid-19 costs. Before students even set foot in the classrooms, Springs had spent $200,000 of it, according to Michael Henery, the district's business official.

"We built up a supply of both P.P.E. and disinfectants. We rented storage space to move bookcases, tables, and desks since we reduced the number of students in each classroom," Mr. Henery said in an email. "We purchased misting machines to help spray disinfectant [and] purchased plastic totes for each student for them to keep their personal work in, just to name some of the major items. . . . We still have a long way to go to get through the year."

At the Amagansett School, officials spent $20,000 on air purifiers, $3,400 for a temperature scanner, and about $30,000 on P.P.E. and cleaning supplies. The district also spent just under $177,450 from its unassigned fund balance to hire more teachers. "The increase in student population drove the need to hire three new teachers in order to meet student needs," Seth Turner, the superintendent, said in an email.

"The remaining unassigned fund balance is just above $1.1 million," Mr. Turner explained. "Both Tom Mager, district treasurer, and I feel that with appropriate planning this is manageable for both the short and long term."

But that is where it gets tricky. By state law, those rainy-day accounts aren't supposed to exceed more than 4 percent of the next year's school budget -- regardless of the challenges that lie ahead, which these days are undeniably plentiful. It's the job of auditors, who come in at the start of every school year, to help districts identify how much of an overage they have. Under normal circumstances, schools can store some of that overage in specific reserves, or they can use it to offset the tax levy, which reduces the burden on taxpayers.

At an Amagansett School Board meeting on Tuesday, and an East Hampton School Board meeting on Oct. 6, auditors from the EFPR Group said they had to report to the New York State comptroller that those districts were above that 4-percent statutory limit, but said otherwise the districts were given "clean" opinions -- the best that they can get.

Joseph Kehm, one of the auditors, told the Amagansett School Board that he has seen most public school districts retaining between 7 and 10 percent as unassigned fund balance. Amagansett's was 11.47 percent at the start of this school year. East Hampton's was 4.71 percent.

"That's something we need" right now, said J.P. Foster, the East Hampton School Board president, on Oct. 6. "I know the recommendation is 4 percent, but nobody recommended Covid, either."

East Hampton had about $1.24 million in its unassigned fund balance at the start of the fiscal year in July, school records show. Since then, it hired two more school nurses, whose salaries together total more than $195,600. That was just one example of the school's expenses; it has also laid out money for Plexiglas barriers for student desks, additional Chromebooks for distance learning, and more.

Another way districts can handle unexpected costs is by borrowing from reserve funds dedicated to other kinds of expenses, such as capital projects or workers' compensation. That rule was enacted by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in recent months. However, anything a district borrows from itself must be paid back over a set period of time.

Bridgehampton borrowed $75,000 from one of its reserves, but Mr. Hauser said he doesn't anticipate having to further reach into those accounts because the district has enough in its unassigned fund balance at the moment.

The Sag Harbor School District is also relying on its fund balance, according to Jeff Nichols, its superintendent. 

"While Covid-19 took us by surprise in March, we have done everything within our power to ensure our students have continued to receive a high-quality education in a safe environment," he said in a statement. "Whether that includes additional social-emotional support, staff training, remediation for individual children, or increased health and safety measures, our district is up for the challenge. The costs associated with those items are worth the investment to make certain our students and our staff feel safe within our buildings."

David Eagan, president of the Wainscott School Board, said his district hasn't incurred anything that's insurmountable.

"To date, the Wainscott District has incurred approximately $30,000 in expenses directly related to Covid-19," he said in an email. "These include extra cleaning and disinfecting, changing plumbing fixtures, updating the old schoolhouse for temporary instructional use (grades two and three), new desks, and cleaning supplies and P.P.E. These expenditures represent less than 1 percent of our 2020-21 approved budget and have not resulted in any significant budget line transfers or any borrowing from the district's reserves."   

The Montauk School District and Sagaponack School District did not respond to inquiries by press time this week.

Mr. Hauser said the ongoing costs of Covid-19 are going to figure prominently in upcoming budget discussions for the 2021-22 school year.

"It's going to be very interesting how we build these costs into a budget that's either going to be below the tax cap or, if you build them in and pierce the cap, the voters will be the one to determine if you're allowed to do that," he said.


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