WYPR – The Baltimore City school board stared down a $21 million shortfall Tuesday night brought on by pandemic spending, as its CEO decides how to handle the rest of the fall term.
Like school systems throughout the nation, the city schools racked up costs to keep online instruction afloat and support students and families as classes went online in the spring and stayed there this fall. All in all, the district spent $131 million on initial pandemic-related expenses.
The district purchased 55,000 devices for students and teachers, 15,000 hotspots for students, thousands of meals to distribute to students and families and millions of dollars worth of cleaning supplies. The school has also seen a reduction in revenue generated by lunch meals.
“While those actions were necessary and critically important to our students and families, they resulted in significant, but unavoidable expenses to the district,” communications head Tina Hike-Hubbard wrote in an email to City Schools’ partners.
The district has received about $77 million in federal, local and philanthropic aid. Its fiscal year 2021 budget was approved in May. The budget for the fiscal year that began in July,, approved in May, did not account for any COVID-19 related costs.
To account for the shortfall, the district enacted a spending and hiring freeze at schools and cut third-party contractor costs in March, then laid off all temporary employees earlier this fall.
City Schools shifted fiscal year 2020 and 2021 funds wherever possible, including $16 million from 2020 close-out funds. Despite those measures, the $21 million shortfall that must be accounted for this fiscal year remains.
“From the very beginning, we have endeavored to save funds whenever possible,” the district’s Chief Financial Officer Christopher J. Doherty said at the board meeting. “We’re finding that this is more of a marathon than a sprint.”
The district has been able to meet its most immediate challenges, Doherty said, but has had to adopt a “years, not months” savings approach.
The district is expected to make an announcement about the rest of fall term by Friday. Students, teachers, parents and district leadership agree on one thing: that’s a tough equation, one that must account for the educational needs of students and COVID-19 spread concerns, while a pandemic that has exacerbated inequity rages on.