Our approach to developing and communicating the District’s budget is consistent with our Strategic Plan's Building Block 4: Data-Informed, Needs-Based Resource Allocation, developing a “Needs Based, Data Informed” method to responsibly allocate limited District resources.
Budgets are about the future. As I contemplate our future as a District and as a community I am energized! This energy comes from my thinking about the opportunities to emerge from the COVID pandemic era as an ever stronger school system and community. We have worked to be very thoughtful as we adapted to the many changes that we’ve all experienced over the past fifteen months. With this budget, we turn our attention to the best ways to emerge from this experience.
We are pleased to submit this recommendation for the 2021-22 budget for your consideration. As we continue to emerge from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to some semblance of normalcy this budget contains many elements of transition. Certainly the pandemic had a wide variety of effects on the District, our students, staff and our community. We continue to find ourselves dealing with many evolving issues and uncertainty. As a result, this recommended budget provides the flexibility necessary to adapt to the continuing change we are experiencing. In addition, we remain cautious in our approach. Our expectations for student enrollment are conservative as this relates to a significant percentage of our funding from the State of Washington.
Enrollment is a key driver in school district budgets. It is a primary factor in determining the amount of state funding a district can anticipate. It is also a key in determining the level of in-classroom staffing is appropriate for the various educational needs of our students. As a result, this is one of the most important efforts in developing a school district budget. Enrollment forecasting for the post-pandemic school year is complicated by the disruption and confusion that resulted. One concern, for example is that kindergarten enrollment will be delayed compared to typical years.
For this budget we took a conservative approach to enrollment. Our forecasts anticipate a reduction in student FTE (full-time equivalent, a measure used by the state for funding) of 228 students. While this would only be a reduction of less than .1%, the reduction in state funding would amount to $2.2 million. Actual state funding will be based on actual student enrollment, but we are using the above estimates for planning purposes.
ESSER Grant Funds
As described in the message from the CFO above, the District will receive federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program (ESSER). These funds can be expended on qualifying costs until September 30, 2024. The District intends to spread the use of these funds over the multiple years permitted by the federal government to address the needs related to the pandemic and any related learning loss for our students. Special care will be given to provide resources to address any learning loss for those students who are furthest from educational justice.
Districtwide Music Program
For at least the last twenty years a Northshore elementary student who wanted to participate in band or orchestra needed to join this activity before the typical school day. This created challenges for access to all students (equity), transportation complications (preventing a change to healthy start times for the school day) and likely deterred some students from participating.
All elementary music programs will be offered as part of the school day starting in the fall of 2021. The budget impacts are largely related to the purchase of additional instruments (especially initially), and the necessary adjustment to staffing to enable these programs to be integrated into the school day. It is expected that these costs will smooth out over time and could eventually become cost neutral while still providing the expanded access to students.
One-time Investment in New Curriculum
The budget includes $5 million for the purpose of the ELA curriculum adoption. This would be a one-time expenditure and is not included in the subsequent four-year budget plans.
COVID-19 and the Health and Safety of Our Students and Staff
One of the concerns we continue to evaluate is the model of instruction for public schools as we recover from the health pandemic. As we prepare this budget we anticipate returning our students to the classroom full-time. We are unable to know for sure what, if any, effects from the pandemic will carry into the next year. As a result, we continue to budget for those costs that might arise due to the health crisis. This includes the additional of six mental health specialists masks for staff and students, cleaning and sanitation supplies. If these items are not needed in the next budget year, these amounts will go unspent and improve the “bottom-line” of our budget – the fund balance.
We continue to make progress on regionalizing District programs. Over the years, programs have been created and offered wherever there was space within the different buildings. This has resulted in a significant amount of “shuttling” students from their home school to the school where the programs were able to fit. A result is a negative impact on transportation systems resulting in shuttling students all across the District to get them to the programs they need as well as programs of choice. An important goal of the District has been to keep students closest to their home schools and the neighborhoods they call home. This enables them to make life-long friends and spend less time on District buses. This budget continues this effort which enables us to address another important goal, healthy start times. See more on this topic below.
Two years ago our district began using the state four-year budget requirement as a way to plan for the future here at Northshore. As we prepare our spending plans, we seek to understand the impact of our decisions on the future years in our financial plans. The District’s financial policy calls for a minimum of three percent (3%) in unencumbered reserves in our General Fund. Included in this budget is the four-year financial plan and an explanation of our assumptions and drivers to do this planning work. In summary, our assumption is that student enrollment will be flat for each of the four years. In addition, we are assuming no significant changes in the level of support either from the state or locally.
Beginning last year, we anticipated that the pandemic would bring fiscal stress to both the District and to our funding partner, Washington State. As a result we used caution in our spending. The result was a higher than normal fund balance at the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year. We are continuing that same approach for this current fiscal year and anticipate a higher fund balance.
As we described, our financial planning assumption for enrollment provides for a declining enrollment next year and a flat enrollment assumption over the subsequent four years. We do not yet know how the events of this spring (primarily the pandemic) will impact both the local economy and our school enrollment. We believe that a flat enrollment assumption is fiscally conservative. However, we do not want to be caught short of staff should we have enrollment growth in the District. As a result, the budget includes a larger centralized staffing pool for both certificated staff and classified staff. Allocations from the pool can be made as we actually see the enrollments occur at the schools when we resume in the fall.
Healthy Start Times
The District has been working to find solutions to a healthy start time for our adolescent students for many years. A Technical Workgroup and transportation consultants worked to find solutions to the many challenges that have blocked our offering a healthy start time to our secondary students. “Healthy start times” start after 8 a.m. for adolescent students and end no later than 4 p.m. for any student. Rearranging our transportation schedules would not be possible without the regionalization of programs and addressing the impacts of the elementary music program discussed above. Having made significant progress we will begin adjusting school schedules in the fall 2021 resulting in healthier start times for our students. The implementation of this effort will occur over time with full implementation expected in the fall of 2022.
One-to-One Student to Computer Ratio
One of the projects identified in our technology levy initiative was to achieve a “one-to-one” ratio of students to technology devices. The District achieved this accomplishment in early 2020. The Northshore approach to this effort consisted of two elements. The student at school element and the student to home element. In the student to school effort we now have an age appropriate computing device for each Northshore student at their school sites. Teachers and other District staff can use these in a variety of ways, again based on student age, content, etc. In the student to home program, those students who lacked access to computing devices at home to complete homework were provided a “take-home” device if desired.
As a result of the COVID 19 closure of District buildings, many of these computing devices have been deployed to student’s homes in order to improve the quality of remote learning. In addition, the District has partnered with T-Mobile to ensure each student has access to Internet connectivity through a mobile “hot-spot”. While our one-to-one program did not anticipate that the District would provide thousands of “take-home” devices, having this resource available to our students has proven to be an important element in our ability to continue teaching and learning in this global pandemic.
Northshore Virtual Program
We recognize that there are students who thrived working online or who do not yet feel comfortable coming back to in person learning due to COVID-19 and the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. Beginning September 2021, Northshore Virtual Program will support student learning in a 100% online format for any interested student in grades K-12. The program will provide an online learning format for students that is coordinated and taught by Northshore School District teachers.