Looking at an unknown school environment in the fall 2020 and at risk state and local funding, the Fort Smith Public School District Board of Education on Monday night (May 18 approved proposed 2020-21 salary schedules that do not include pay increases.
The approved salary schedule does not include any increase to the certified salary base pay, which will remain at $38,500, or to the classified salary base. According to a report by Charles Warren, FSPS chief financial officer, there is “no reliable revenue to add to the salary schedule base.” The base salary for teachers increased $250 in 2016-17; $200 in 2017-18; $100 in 2018-19; and $450 in 2019-20.
Total new revenue for the 2020-21 year is $2.97 million. Of that, $1.68 million in state funding and $358,409 in local funding is at risk, Warren said. The cost of step increases for the district will result in $1.04 million more to the district’s budget, leaving only $103,569 in total available revenue, according to the report.
FSPS has four factors of funding — millage, assessed values, foundation funding and student count. Millage remains at 36.5 mills for 2020-21 even though voters approved a millage increase in May 2018. The additional 5.558 mills approved by the voters are committed to the Vision 2023 Capital Improvement Program and cannot be used for salary calculations, Warren said.
The Sebastian County assessor provides assessed values each year; with the county clerk reporting assessed values to the Arkansas Department of Education and the county treasurer releasing tax statements to taxpayers, Warren said. Over the past five years, assessed values have increased anywhere from 0.11% in 2015 to 2.88% in 2017. There was a 1.5% increase in 2019, Warren said. But values for 2020 have dropped .84%, he added equaling a drop in collected assessments.
Foundation funding, which also has risen over the past five years, is down 0.02% this year. However, student count, which declined in 2018 and 2019, grew by 52.25 in 2020. Student count determines state funding.
What it all adds up to is that funding for the school district did not decrease this year, but indications point to a possible decline for next year.
With the state looking at decreased sales tax revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no guarantee funding to public schools, which makes up more than 50% of the state budget, won’t be affected, said FSPS Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker.
There is also no way to know for certain how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the school district’s budget. With school moving from in-house to on-line in March and continuing that way through the end of the school year, there were added expenses and savings for the district. For example, transportation costs dropped significantly without the need for normal bus routes or travel for athletics and other events. There could also be energy savings without having students on campus, Warren said.
Student nutrition costs rose significantly, Brubaker said, because of the district’s efforts for grab-and-go lunches and breakfasts for students.
“But 75-80% of our budget is salaries and benefits. Those costs did not change,” Warren said.
There is also uncertainty what costs might change for the coming school year. There could be cost for personal protective gear, alternative methods of instruction, technology-related expenses and more, Warren said. Brubaker noted at Monday’s meeting that discussions with the state about the upcoming school year have included PPE being required.
School Board President Bill Hanesworth said it is not known whether all or some students will learn from home in the 2020-21 school year or if school will return to normal practices. Brubaker noted that no matter what, there might be some students who because of medical or parental reasons will continue to learn virtually during the 2020-21 school year. In order to meet the needs of students who do not have internet access at home, the board approved the purchase of 2,500 LTE modems, more commonly known as hotspots, for the start of the school year.
The cost of equipment is estimated to be $2,716.31. Servicing cost is expected to be about $1.097 million for 10-month service or $1.317 million for 12-month service. Brubaker said the district is expecting about $4 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Those funds would be used for the hotspots, he said.
An informal survey of high school students in March showed about 7% of the student population did not have home internet access. Though he believes the high school population is a good representation of the student population, Brubaker said he was not certain how accurate the survey was and expects the number of students without home internet access is higher. The district is more closely looking into the number of students without access.
“We don’t know exactly how things are going to change for the upcoming school year, but I believe it will somehow,” Hanesworth said.
So, the district is proceeding with caution, Brubaker and Warren said. There is funding available for staff to continue moving up on the salary schedules as long as there isn’t a raise to the base salary, Warren said. This was explained to representatives for classified and certified employees, and though not all were happy with the decision, everyone seemed to understand the need for it, Warren said.
“If we were to raise the base salary, and then funding dropped next year, we can’t take it back. That is why we have to be cautious now,” he said.
In other business, the school board approved awarding the construction manager at risk contract for Phase 2-A of the access and security upgrades to Bonneville, Orr, Sutton and Tilles elementary schools to the Fort Smith-based crew of Nabholz Construction Management Company. The new millage rate passed by voters in 2018 is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. Upgrades at Bonneville, Orr and Sutton are expected to be completed in October, and those at Tilles are expected by the first of December.