Frederick County Public Schools will enter the fiscal 2022 budget season with some major funding unknowns amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Enrollment questions, declining state and local revenue and opening new facilities are among the unknowns as education watchers prepare for Superintendent Terry Alban to unveil her spending plan next month.
FCPS officials offered some insight Wednesday night into budget preparations during the school system’s annual community budget forum.
Heather Clabaugh, budget officer for FCPS, said the COVID-19 pandemic may impact the amount of funding FCPS receives from both the state and county governments. In fiscal 2021, state and local funding amounted to approximately 80 percent of FCPS’ revenue.
Whether FCPS will see a hit in its state funding will be determined when the governor’s budget is released at the end of January. The county’s budget will be released in April.
Another uncertainty is how this year’s enrollment numbers will affect the budget, Clabaugh said.
The school system receives revenue based on actual and projected enrollment numbers. The number of students enrolled by the end of September of each school year is used to develop an enrollment projection for the next school year, which in turn determines how much staffing, equipment and supplies are needed, among other things.
This year, FCPS saw a drop in enrollment — 211 students as of Sept. 30 — for the first time in years due to the pandemic, according to school system officials.
“We had a lot of parents whose students were supposed to start kindergarten who took advantage of the law that says they can defer for a year ... we had a lot of families that said, for whatever reason, I’m going to homeschool now, but when you go back, I want to come back,” Superintendent Terry Alban said.
Alban said lower enrollment numbers this year could lead to incorrect projections for next year, which could cause the school system to receive less funding and therefore start next year “in the hole.”
This year, more than ever, advocacy at the state level is critical, Alban said.
“We’ve already started conversations with our legislators about holding us harmless for enrollment declines this year, so this is something you’re going to hear a lot more from us about encouraging our community to advocate for support,” Alban said. “There are going to be needs we have to address when we bring our students back to the classroom.”
One question that has been asked numerous times recently by community members is how much cost savings the school system saw this year by having students and staff at home and whether that money can be rolled over to next year.
FCPS Chief Financial Officer Leslie Pellegrino said from a utility perspective, there have not been large savings as buildings have continued to operate with lights turned on and increased airflow.
The areas where FCPS saw the biggest savings, she said, were in substitute teacher salaries and transportation.
“Some of our teachers, they can work around appointments and what not, so we haven’t had that need. The other area where we’ve saved money is in fuel because we aren’t running as many buses on our roads,” Pellegrino said.
Despite the savings, though, the school system has seen unexpected costs arise with virtual learning needs. Staff is also expecting new costs to arise if the school system begins a hybrid model in January.
Pellegrino said she is not anticipating having any more than the normal amount of savings to be rolled over into fiscal 2022.
Another question that was submitted during Wednesday’s forum asked what coronavirus economic relief the school system had received.
Pellegrino said FCPS has received about $14 million from state and local governments for COVID-19 relief. Much of that has been used to acquire cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for staff, increase available tutoring for students, provide free meals and manage technology needs.
A large portion of the money was also used to transition many Career and Technology Education classes online, according to Clabaugh.
About $9 million, which included a special tutoring grant, will end on Dec. 30, Clabaugh said, whereas other grants will continue to be available through 2022.
Clabaugh sought to assure viewers that the tutoring program will continue and will be funded through other means.
FCPS plans to use the remaining money and other grants that may become available to cover unexpected costs that arise and to help manage any learning losses that may be identified once students return to the classroom.
The fiscal 2022 budget is also expected to include specific funding needs related to the opening of Blue Heron Elementary School and the new Rock Creek School. Both are scheduled to open in fall 2021.
Additionally, many school systems across the state will be keeping an eye on Annapolis and what lawmakers do with the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future—a comprehensive 10-year public education funding plan that was vetoed by the governor last year.
The legislature could vote to overturn the governor’s action. If overturned, FCPS could receive up to $4 million to begin implementing initiatives such as expanded full-day prekindergarten and expenditures for more college and career readiness.
Despite COVID, community members still seem to have teacher salaries and class size near the top of their priority list. Whether these will be priorities of the superintendent or Board of Education is yet to be determined.
The next step in the budget process will be the release of the superintendent’s recommended budget on Jan. 11.
The board will then hold an all-day budget work session on Jan. 20 and a public hearing to receive more community feedback on Feb. 3.