With K-12 public schools closed throughout Arkansas, schools are saving money on transportation costs but facing technology and other expenses while wondering what the future holds.
Bentonville Superintendent Dr. Debbie Jones said her district is saving 1,771 gallons of diesel a day, which at a normal cost of $2 a gallon equals $3,542 in daily savings. The bus shop has moved into summer mode early and is taking care of maintenance issues that will save money in the future. The district also is saving on utility costs and the costs of substitute teachers.
But those expenses compose only a small part of the district’s budget, 74% of which goes to salaries while about another 11% is dedicated to the district’s bond issue. All of those expenses continue to be met during the shutdown.
The district has new expenses, too. Among the largest has been a $17,640 installation of outdoor wireless access points so it can broadcast its wi-fi network 600 feet into the parking lots for students who don’t have broadband internet access at home. The district also has spent $2,388 on an online chat system. And it’s spent almost $11,000 on hand sanitizer.
Like many districts, Bentonville is still serving school lunches, which are being served in satellite locations and transported to about 80 low-income students.
Districts aren’t sure how those services will affect their finances, said Dr. Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. School districts receive federal dollars for students on the free and reduced price lunch program, but many districts are simply delivering free meals to all students who want them. Arkansas has a high poverty rate with many families facing new economic hardship, and there are confidentiality issues associated with singling out free and reduced price students. As a result, students who normally would pay for a meal now are getting one for free.
Districts also may not be reimbursed for therapy services provided by assistants virtually, as they would if those services were provided in person. But schools are still providing those services.
“If it’s in their (individualized educational plan), if it’s identified as a student need, they’re going to do it, so they’re just going to have to absorb those costs,” Abernathy said.
Abernathy said school districts have cut off purchasing for the year because they know they will have expenses next year as they try to remediate students. Districts are making plans for how to do that.
“We’re just in a fluid time, and everybody’s just trying to do the best they can,” he said. “I’ve talked to superintendents, and they’re burned out, the teachers are burned out, but I do think we’re getting better at delivering instruction, and I know parents are burned out, too.”
Jones said the transition to full-time digital learning went “shockingly smooth” in Bentonville. The district invests $4.7 million in technology annually and has been moving to provide digital devices to all its students over the last four years. Many teachers had already been using Google Classroom. Students in grades 7-12 were already taking devices home each day, while younger students had access to Chromebooks attached to a cart in class. On March 12, school personnel detached the computers from the carts and then the next day distributed 10,000 to students. Two days later, Gov. Asa Hutchinson made his first announcement that schools would be closed. At the time, it was temporary.
Bentonville teachers are now posting lessons and videos online in the evening. If a student isn’t completing the lessons, the family is contacted by principals and deans and may have a home visit. Jones said a typical elementary school has about 10 families who are contacted out of 700-800 students. Some districts were not as prepared to make the transition. The AAEA’s Abernathy said the biggest issue has been internet access.
“That has been a real struggle in some of our communities,” he said. “We have really identified the haves and have-nots when it comes to technology.”
Other districts are seeing savings or at least a rearranging of expenses as a result of the school closings. Dr. Joe Fisher, superintendent of the Guy-Perkins School District, said his district is saving $4,000 to $5,000 per month on transportation costs even as it delivers food and educational packets to students. The district is also saving money on substitute teachers, toilet paper, paper towels, soap and general cleaning supplies. It’s shifting money to paint hallway and classroom walls and completing maintenance projects. Cedar Ridge Superintendent Dr. Andy Ashley said his district has not seen much savings on fuel because it’s bought in advance and stored in tanks. It’s keeping its building temperatures constant on the advice of its energy consultant. And it spent more than $1,000 to purchase an outdoor wi-fi access point for the school parking lot.
The West Memphis School District is running 14 buses instead of 22-24 and making one trip a day to deliver meals to parking lots and to certain areas. Foodservice personnel are preparing meals, while bus drivers are handing out educational packets to students who are struggling with internet access. West Memphis Superintendent Jon Collins said the district is aware some students face food insecurity or live in homes where they don’t receive much positive adult attention.
“I think that the safety and social and emotional well-being was probably priority number one, and then you start looking at OK, how do we figure out how to provide educational services during this time and ensure that every child’s getting something of quality and getting it back to us?” Collins said. “And then once you figure those two issues out, then you really have to start focusing on the business end of it as well.”
School administrators are now looking to the future. Cedar Ridge’s Ashley is worried about losing students to homeschooling or to other districts. He’s also concerned about collecting Chromebooks that are being used by departing students or that will be broken at home.
Abernathy estimated he is spending six hours a day in Zoom sessions with school administrators. Those sessions allow superintendent and principal groups to share information and ideas. In the beginning, the major conversation topics were ensuring students had access to devices and alternative instruction packets, and food. Later, proms and graduation ceremonies became a focus. After the governor officially closed schools for the year April 6, the topics shifted to the summer and the fall.
And what about next year’s football season?
“You know, there has not been a single conversation about football yet, but it’s coming. … Actually, they’re not looking that far out right now,” he said.
The pandemic undoubtedly will lead to permanent changes in Arkansas public education. In Bentonville, this was the first year students in grades 6-12 could take 100% of their classes online, which 140 students were doing. The district is considering expanding the program to students in lower grades and then tracking how they perform.
The AAEA’s Abernathy sees some of the changes as permanent – and as a good thing. Referencing Bentonville, he said, “You want home delivery of instruction? We can do that. You want a blended approach of instruction – come to school some days, some days at home? We can do that. You want traditional school? We can do that. So I’m hopeful that that is what will be sustainable after this is over. More variety for parents and for kids (and) different opportunities and different methods to learn.”