The discussions surrounding the proposed budget for the Frederick County Public Schools shows the uncertainty of governing in the midst of a pandemic, while the terrible winds of change are still blowing.
The school system’s budget, which was basically crafted before the worst of the pandemic hit, is going to need to be substantially rewritten. FCPS will get less money than it had requested from the county, and it must cope with unprecedented challenges in educating our children.
When will schools be permitted to reopen? What will they look like when they do? Those are among the most basic questions facing Superintendent Terry Alban and her staff.
The answers are not easily obtained. While the school buildings are unlikely to reopen to finish the 2019-20 school year, we have to believe that at some point they will. But some models of the pandemic do not look encouraging, with new cases and numerous deaths continuing through the summer. And virtually every expert predicts a fall rebound of some kind for the virus.
We are in completely uncharted territory.
Class size is always an important consideration for educators. But what class sizes will even be allowed in the future? Will the students need to be separated by social distancing? Will half of each class come for instruction in the morning and half in the afternoon?
Will high school students continue largely with home instruction? If they do, how will we be certain that all students have equal access to the tools they will need, including computers and internet access?
When the school board approved the FY 2021 budget in February, reducing class size and increasing teacher pay were the paramount concerns. But in the three months since then, our whole world has been transformed.
County Executive Jan Gardner’s proposed budget already reduced the additional operating funds requested by the school system, in large part because of the uncertainty about what the future holds. It is extremely hard to accurately predict future tax revenue.
Gardner proposed spending $7 million more than the “maintenance of effort” level. By state law, every school system in Maryland must continue spending — at a minimum — the same amount per pupil each year.
The school board had requested the county provide $28 million more than the minimum. Funding priorities will now have to be revised with the lower funding, but the revisions are likely to be much more drastic than the staff ever conceived.
For example, Alban explained to members of the County Council recently that making certain that students and staff have access to reliable technology has become even more vital.
FCPS distributed Chromebook computers to students of all grade levels who needed them when distance learning first began in March. If distance-learning continues into the Fall, Alban said, the system might need to replace or refresh 30 percent of those devices.
The cost of buying all those computers virtually eliminated the savings the system saw for not having to bus children to school or hire substitute teachers. Replacing them will cost $2 million, according to Leslie Pellegrino, chief financial officer.
Whatever the costs associated with adapting our schools to a whole new world of education next year, the school system and the county must maintain maximum flexibility.
It is next to impossible to know right now what the needs will be or what the resources will be. Will the federal government approve financial aid to state and local governments that have been hurt by the pandemic? Will the state have the resources to support local needs like education? We just don’t know.
Our elected officials need to defer any new initiatives or programs or making any substantive changes to taxes. Hold tight and see where this storm carries us.