Mountain View Whisman School District's deficit spending has more than doubled to $3.3 million this year, following pay raises and a mad scurry to buy more than 1,000 Chromebooks so students can do schoolwork remotely, according to the latest projections.
The sobering budget report, reviewed by the school board last week, foresees turbulent times ahead for the school district's finances beyond the immediate-term spending spree. State and federal funding will be slashed for next year, with estimates showing that the massive spike in unemployment and recession caused by the coronavirus will blow a $19 billion hole in California's education budget.
In early March, Mountain View Whisman was already projected to end the 2019-20 school year with $1.4 million in deficit spending. But in the weeks that followed, the COVID-19 outbreak in the region triggered a shutdown of local schools, prompting the district to pour money into buying computers and internet hotspots to connect students for distance learning. The total costs for the Chromebook rollout is expected to be $1.53 million for the 2019-20 school year.
At the same time, the school board also voted to grant a 3% raise on top of a one-time bonus to its teachers and classified staff, adding more than $2.7 million in extra spending for the school year. Taken altogether, the district is spending nearly $4.7 million more than expected just two months ago.
The silver lining is that it could be much worse. The district received a helping hand from a voter-approved bond measure in March that passed just weeks before the region rolled out public health orders requiring schools to close and residents to stay home. The bond measure helped pay off construction debt and wiped out an annual $1.9 million payment that was due next month.
Crafting a budget for the upcoming 2020-21 school year will be challenging due to the uncertainty related to COVID-19 and its impacts on the state budget, with the expectation that California lawmakers could keep tweaking education funding through August, said Rebecca Westover, Mountain View Whisman's chief business officer. As it stands today, she said the district is expecting to receive $254,000 less in state funding and $549,000 less in federal funding than previously thought.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week a $19 billion decline in education funding in the May revision of the state budget that will translate to a 10% drop in local school district funding for the 2020-21 year, despite several efforts to backfill the loss. Those efforts include a $4.4 billion investment in learning losses related to school closures, including the possibility of an early start to the upcoming school year.
California's education budget in the May revision is framed as being strapped for cash, with promises to scale back the cuts in the event that the federal government provides more money to states for education. This stands in stark contrast to the budget surplus expected in January.
"The May revision looks nothing like the January budget," Westover told trustees at the May 21 meeting.
Mountain View's local school districts are largely cushioned from the blow to the state's school funding cuts. Due to California's funding structure, the local school districts receive more money from property tax revenue than it would though the state's guaranteed per-student funding, meaning state funding only makes up about 7.1% of Mountain View Whisman's revenue, so state cuts have a relatively small effect on the budget.
"We are in a reasonable position in comparison to other school districts," Westover said.
While the Mountain View Whisman school board has yet to review budget cuts, district officials say that they had not fired any employees due to COVID-19 as of April 27. State law permits school districts, in the event of economic recession and budget cuts, to fire teachers as late as August 15 instead of by the normal March 15 deadline.