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School funding has always been a challenge, but a recession and pandemic have made it even more of a hurdle for many districts in recent years

Prioritizing school funding in the midst of multiple crises

School funding has always been a challenge, but a recession and pandemic have made it even more of a hurdle for many districts in recent years

Faced with fast-changing instructional models, varying infection rates, decreasing revenue sources, and a variety of natural disasters, how can education finance officials meet the short-term needs of their districts as well as longer-term school funding requirements?

During a recent edLeader Panel, four experts shared their recent experiences and current perspectives on the issues and challenges that school districts have been coping with during the past six months. They also discussed interim solutions and plans for the future, all of which are continuing to evolve.

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A number of the speakers actually had wildfires raging nearby as they spoke, while the combined impact of the pandemic and related recession were also presenting urgent challenges to the well-being of local students and educators, as well as to parents and other community members.

Creative re-purposing and partnering

For Dr. Lisa Gonzales, Chief Business Officer of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in California, one of the biggest changes and challenges was her district’s sudden switch during the summer from a return to schools to going entirely online at the start of the new school year. With more than 29,000 students and 50 school sites spread over 150 square miles, providing needed services to a diverse student population in a wide range of different settings was no easy task.

Rather than using their school buses to bring students to schools, the district turned its buses into mobile service providers that could deliver meals and other types of support to students, while also serving as internet connection hotspots. With bus drivers at the wheel, food service providers and other personnel such as child welfare officers have been riding the buses and going to where the students are, instead of having students come to them.

These types of arrangements require effective partnering with unions and community groups, in order to identify solutions and reach agreements while dealing with budget shortfalls. Dr. Gonzales’s district is reaching out to local non-profits for help with the shift to 100% online learning, which cannot be done quickly or cheaply, especially at a time when the district is receiving less state funding.

Dr. Gonzales recommends staying focused on attendance, which now means how many students are connecting online and for how long, as these will be important school funding matters going forward. She also recommends working with county and state officials to track what’s working in other districts, and she suggested keeping the district’s “external auditor on speed dial” to make sure that any new steps being taken are within the appropriate guidelines and deadlines, which also remain subject to change.

Understanding ESSER, ESF-REM, and GEER

Susan Gentz, a partner at K20Connect, provided a guide to the types of emergency federal funding that became available during the summer of 2020, as well as some of the issues that districts receiving funding will need to work through. She pointed out that the legislation was passed quickly and without a lot of accountability, leaving a lot of the details to be figured out later.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund follows the same formula as Title I, so it can be used to help bridge the digital divide for students from low-income families. At roughly $35 billion, it is a major source of funding but not nearly enough given the shortfall in state and local revenues, which traditionally provide a large percentage of school funding budgets.

There are also Education Stabilization Fund – Rethink Education Models (ESF-REM) grants, and they also can be used to provide broadband access as part of a new education model. In addition, the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) allow each state’s governor to select projects that then receive federal funds.

Gentz reports that there has been confusion about deadlines, many of which are federal but some of which are state imposed. And in some cases, there may be requirements that the federal funds supplement state budgets rather than replace them. There are also numerous waivers that have been granted and should be taken into consideration.

Moving forward

Arati Nagaraj, a school board trustee for Saratoga Union School District in California, began serving on her local board in the midst of the Great Recession, and now finds herself dealing with a global pandemic as well as another recession. She is finding the current situation the hardest she has had to navigate, as it continues to pose the most difficult and challenging decisions.

The strategic plan that she and other members of the district had developed “went out the window” when the pandemic hit, and now there’s an intense focus on identifying what funds are available and how they can be used to meet the needs of the community. Differentiating between one-time-use and recurring funds is crucial in determining how to get through the current situation, while also thinking about the next few years.

Also important is looking at open positions and considering whether they need to be filled under the current circumstances. She recommends an emphasis on “moving forward” rather than “re-opening schools,” because the latter has more of a rear-view mirror perspective on something that may not occur right away, and will probably not be the same when it does happen.

And like Dr. Gonzales, Nagaraj also recommends a creative focus on partnerships, which can include re-purposing existing ones, such as using PTA funds for social-emotional learning programs that include students, teachers, and parents. There should also be outreach to new partners such as libraries and local city councils in an effort to obtain resources and other support.

Staying organized and healthy

Dr. David Trautenberg, Founder and CEO of AlignK12 Education Finance Consulting, believes this is the worst school funding crisis since the Great Recession, and that schools will not be going back to K-12 education as it was formerly known. He also believes that district finance officials have a crucial role to play as “Sherpas” who can provide support for education communities and guide them through their current, difficult circumstances.

Dr. Trautenberg recommends using a “systems approach” that includes forecasting budget deceases and then aligning the expenditures to meet instructional, health, and learning needs regardless of which educational model may be used currently or in the future. There also needs to be sufficient reserves to manage the complexity of the pandemic and its uncertain impacts, thereby preserving flexibility to respond to further changes.

Working with the district leadership team, finance officials should identify the top priorities and “binding constraints” such as facility space, transportation costs, PPE pricing, and state guidelines. Looking carefully at all available school funding sources, including Medicaid, is also crucial in order to identify which funds should be used first, which are for one-time use only, and which should be allocated to recurring costs.

In addition to “hitting the ground learning,” Dr. Trautenberg believes school finance officials need to stay organized and creative, and remain healthy both physically and emotionally in order to pace themselves during what will undoubtedly be a challenging marathon.

About the presenters

Susan Gentz is a partner at K20Connect, a consulting consortium of experts focused on education leadership, technology and policy. Susan comes from a strong policy background as a former staffer in the United States Senate and legislative aide in the Iowa House of Representatives. Along with experience at both federal and state levels, she served as the deputy executive director for the Center for Digital Education, worked for a government relations firm in Arlington, Virginia, and worked on federal and state education policy at iNACOL, where she wrote published reports to move the field forward with innovative learning models, best practices, and policy recommendations.

Arati Nagaraj is an education consultant, edtech advisor and school board trustee in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a 25+ career in education, Arati has used her curriculum design skills to create unique learning experiences in education and nonprofit sectors at Pearson, EdSurge and Silicon Valley Education Foundation. She has also leveraged these skills to create employee onboarding and training programs at Apple, Facebook, Google and Uber. Arati is currently on the edtech advisory board for Central Square Foundation in New Delhi, India. In November 2020, she will complete ten years as a trustee of the Saratoga Union School District Board in California. Arati has an M.Ed. in media and technology from Boston University, and a bachelor’s in early childhood education from India.

A nationally recognized expert in K12 finance, Dr. Trautenberg is the founder and CEO of AlignK12. Align K12 specializes in assisting school districts in the alignment, allocation and continuous improvement of financial resources to the district’s strategic plan. Employing an entry planning approach to “hit the ground learning,” AlignK12 identifies the relationships, processes, and tools and creates the conditions necessary to optimize resources at the district level to improve student outcomes. Recent notable achievements include restructuring and rebuilding finance teams of the Aurora (CO) and New Orleans Public Schools; forensic review of budget practices and procedures and contributor to Omaha Public Schools’ 2025 Strategic Plan; and acting CFO for the Garfield RE-2 School District to support the Board of Education’s takeover and restructuring of that rural district’s finances. Trautenberg received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania’s (Penn) GSE Mid- Career Doctoral Program in Organizational and Educational Leadership; an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business; master’s degrees in education from both Penn (Secondary Ed) and Leeds University (Curriculum Theory); and a B.A. from Penn where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Dr. Lisa Gonzales was President of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), an 18,000 member organization. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Urban Superintendent’s Academy and the Stanford University Executive Program for Education Leaders. Lisa was one of 100 Superintendents selected as #FutureReady by President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan. Dr. Gonzales is currently the Chief Business Officer for the Mt Diablo Unified School District in the Silicon Valley. Her advocacy work has resulted in numerous awards, including ACSA Leadership Matters Legislative Award, White House ConnectED Superintendent Award, National “Women in Leadership” Award from the School Superintendent’s Association, and Commendation for Public School Leadership from the City of San Jose. Committed to female leadership, she helped resurrect ACSA’s Women’s Leadership Network and speaks statewide and nationally on a number of topics around women’s issues in leadership, branding, networking, and technology. She has written dozens of articles on topics related to leadership, safe schools, strategic planning, and leadership support programs for principals and other educational leaders.

About the host

Dr. Kecia Ray’s career includes designing technology within the Frist Art Museum and directing technology research through Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Science Outreach programs. She was appointed as a turnaround agent to work with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools from 2003–2007 by the Tennessee Commissioner of Education, and she continued working with the district as a district administrator. In Nashville, Dr. Ray established award-winning instructional technology programs that were recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and Harvard University. Dr. Ray was named “20 to Watch” by the National School Board Association, Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women, a top 10 EdTech Leaders by Tech & Learning, and most recently named a Top 100 EdTech Influencer by EdTech Digest.

Join the community

Education Funding is a free professional learning community on created to help educators and institutions uncover the funds they need to supplement shoestring budgets, expand innovative programs, prepare students for the increasingly complex skills they’ll need to participate in tomorrow’s workforce, and help close the equity gap in educating students from all backgrounds and circumstances.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Gaggle. View the recording of the edLeader Panel here and listen to the podcast here.

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