Save it for a rainy day, or pay double-duty teachers? Polk district debates COVID-19 funds

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The Leger | by Kimberly C. Moore | January 27, 2021

LAKELAND — Polk County Public Schools is in a bit of a tug of war for its Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act funding.

Staff in the district’s finance office want to squirrel it away for a rainy day. Teacher advocates want it spent on bonuses for those who are having to teach both in-person and online classes simultaneously.

The federal government sent $33.5 million in CARES Act funding to the school district for expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there were unclear instructions on how the money could be spent, and district officials didn’t know whether the money could be used for salaries or bonuses or both. More than $6 million of the money has already been spent on computers for students so they could participate in e-learning, but the rest is still being held by the district.

A big part of the issue is how much of a fund balance the district needs. The School Board originally required a 5% fund balance, but it was dropped to 4% in the past year to help pay for raises.

The district ended the 2019-20 fiscal year in June with a $81 million fund balance or 6.37% of the district’s nearly $2 billion budget. It’s projected to have $103.8 million in savings at the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year, or 7.24% of the district’s budget.

At Tuesday’s School Board meeting at the Jim Miles Center in Highland City, Heather Jenkins, acting associate superintendent and chief financial officer, said there are some uncertainties still looming. They aren’t sure what the district’s lapse in salaries will look like at the end of the year, nor are they sure how much money the state will give the district from its Florida Education Finance Program – numbers that will come out in the next few weeks.

“One of the reasons that our fund balance climbed at the end of last year and is still climbing is due to a change in our operations because of COVID,” Jenkins said. “However, we’re seeing some new additions at this time for expenses we had to add — $4 million for Polk Virtual because we had to add programming in order to reach all the students that have gone to our virtual school and then we had our teacher salary increase which is $18 million.”

She said CARES Act money has come with new guidelines, which do allow for the funds to be spent on salaries. She said that frees up unrestricted fund money to be saved. Federal and state law or the district’s own rules require different types of funding be spent on things like teachers’ salaries, construction, paying back loans or an emergency fund. That ties the hands of district officials.

“We are looking at ways of how to best maximize it, not only for our staff but also for our students,” she said.

School Board member Lynn Wilson, a certified public accountant and fiscal conservative, pointed out that some recurring expenses have been reduced because of the pandemic but will return, and he urged a cautious approach.

School Board member Lynn Wilson.

School Board Member Lynn Wilson. Pierre DuCharme/The Ledger

“It’s my experience that when you’re budgeting, you’re trying to anticipate the future and sometimes that can be incredibly difficult,” Wilson said. “If you budget too conservatively, you have a lot of people who are unhappy with you or even angry with you. But if you budget too aggressively, you cost people their jobs and their livelihoods, and so I agree it’s always better to err on the side of conservatism and take the heat a little bit.”

In the fall, former Associate Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Michael Perrone urged caution in part because the district saw a drop in student enrollment of about 5,000 students, which would have meant the loss of tens of millions of dollars. But those students have since returned.

But School Board member Lisa Miller wanted to know why district finance officials didn’t see the windfall coming.

“When Mr. Perrone first brought this forward … he almost predicted that the fund balance would be very low. Was there not a mechanism in place to show that that was not going to happen?” Miller asked. “Now I’m being told we’re not to hold CARES Act money.  We had some places where we could’ve supported more with that funding and we chose to hold it and now we’re being told we should not have held onto it.”

Polk County School Board member Lisa Miller.
Polk County School Board Member Lisa Miller. Ernst Peters

Jenkins said they had to continue to pay employees, even when school was shut down for an additional week after spring break. She added that budget cuts could come from the state at the end of the fiscal year in June or the beginning of the next fiscal year in July.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any information, so we’re kind of at a spot where we don’t know what’s going to happen and rather than committing the funds we do have, in my opinion, it’s better to be a little cautious right now and then if we end up in a great position next year, we can have several conversations about what we can do with the funds.”

Polk Education Association teachers’ union President Stephanie Yocum said the state has promised to hold per-pupil funding steady through the end of the school year and so the district is not in the financial  straights officials thought it would be in at this time. Because of that, she wants to see teachers, most of whom have had to adapt to a whole new way of teaching, be rewarded, along with custodial and other vital non-instruction staff, who have seen their workload increase, as well.

Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum wants federal COVID relief money to be paid to teachers, who have had to adapt how they instruct students.
Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum wants federal COVID relief money to be paid to teachers, who have had to adapt how they instruct students. Pierre DuCharme/The Ledger

“We’re actually looking pretty good right now,” Yocum said. “You definitely have the money to pay them and to pay our (non-instructional) brothers and sisters… We gotta do it, guys. I don’t understand why we’re delaying this any more.”

Winter Haven High School agriculture teacher Christy McCullough spoke to the board about the difficulties of teaching kids sitting in front of her and students at home on their computers. She explained that she has had to create additional lesson plans for those studying from home for the five different subjects that she teaches, including classes that involve students at various levels of beginning, intermediate and advanced.

“I have to present the material in a way that the online kids can do it online,” she said, adding that she can’t have all her in-person students do the lesson online, too. “The computers have all been given out, so we don’t have computers. So each assignment that I redo might take me an hour – for each class. It’s not the same job. Please remember what we’re doing, those of us that are hybrid teachers, what every day is like.” 

Featured Photo: Polk County Public Schools officials are trying to decide how to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds. Teachers advocates want it spent on teachers who have had to adapt how they instruct. Parents accompany their children to class during the first day of school at Dixieland Elementary in Lakeland, Florida, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.  Ernst Peters /The Ledger