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Sarasota Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020 4 weeks ago

Sarasota schools budget back on the path toward balance

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Sarasota County Schools started the year with a projected deficit of $21.8 million. At the semester break, that's down to $18.3 million with more federal dollars on the way.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

After much uncertainty as to how losses related to COVID-19 would affect the district’s $503 million operating budget, district administrators say the spending plan is slowly getting back on track. 

Throughout the year, the quick-changing COVID-19 regulations and state directives prompted administrators to rework budget projections several times. However, the latest projections show the district is closer than before to ending the school year with a balanced budget. 

Original projections had the district ending the 2020-21 year with a $21.8 million deficit. New projections show the district with an $18.3 million deficit thanks to several changes. And the district is eligible for up to $5.1 million in coronavirus federal relief, which will go toward paying staff for an extra week of training before the start of the school year in August.

Under the state’s Emergency Order No. 6, the district would receive funding based on what legislators approved in the General Appropriations Act. Half the funds are awarded in October and another half are to be awarded in February. 

That order meant that the district still received funding based on projected number of students, not the actual number of enrolled students, which Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Superintendent Mitsi Corcoran said helped the district immensely.

“This has proven to be a lifesaver for us because we are down large numbers of students,” Corcoran said. “We had a large number of students who kind of chose to red shirt themselves out of kindergarten or who chose home school options or virtual school options which provide less funding.” 

The district projected an enrollment of 44,845 students for the 2020-21 school year. The actual student enrollment is 43,388.

The district receives about $8,000 annually for each enrolled student, which means if the state didn't fund based off projections, the district would see approximately $11.6 million less. 

Though the emergency order helped schools with lower enrollment numbers, it didn’t help districts that have seen an increase in enrollment. 

During the state’s latest emergency order issued in late November, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued a directive for school districts to continue receiving consistent funding so long as they have a contingency plan to transition struggling remote learners into traditional classrooms. 

The change means that districts that are seeing lower enrollment will still see funding based on beginning of the year projections. Districts that have a higher number of enrolled students will receive funding based on actual enrollment. 

The cost to fund the increase in growth districts will be proportionately spread across all school districts, and the estimated impact for Sarasota is a reduction of $1.5 million in projected revenue. The revenue in the new budget has been adjusted accordingly.

Even with the reduction, Corcoran said the plan is "more generous" than the district anticipated.  

“I can’t tell you how relieved we were when this emergency order came out in terms of where it leaves us for the current year,” Corcoran said. 

According to its latest projections, the district anticipates ending the school year with $49.7 million in its reserve fund, which is equal to 10.9% of its revenue, within the state's mandated 3% and the district's more stringent and self-imposed minimum of 7.5%. 

Costs for several line items of the budget came in lower than anticipated, including scholarships, travel and teacher units. The district reduced instructional units by 34 because of vacancies and leaves, and there wasn’t a need for as many teachers this year due to lower enrollment. As of Oct. 31, the district had more than 100 instructional vacancies. 

However, some estimated revenues also came in higher than anticipated. For example, materials and services is higher because of Personal Protective Equipment purchases and the operation of plant appropriations are higher because the district is pumping more air through the schools to improve circulation. 

Still, Assistant Budget Director Christa Curtner said the district is in good shape. 

“All in all, it’s trending very well,” Curtner said. “It was a breath of fresh air to see they were going to be able to fund us the way they were.”

In previous years, the district had a revenue stream for Best and Brightest incentives for teachers. That program was replaced this year by the statewide teacher salary increase allocation, which allowed the base salary for all Sarasota teachers to be raised to $47,500. 

The increase means the district will receive about $3 million more than it would have for the Best and Brightest allocation. 

The district also had to recalculate federal relief funds that were previously budgeted for private schools. Originally, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said private schools were to receive funding proportionally based on enrollment. 

However, after several court cases were filed disputing the mandate, DeVos reversed her position, causing the district to recalculate. The reappropriation left the district with about $300,000 to apply toward public school use. 

Now that the district has a contingency plan for struggling concurrent learners submitted to the state, Corcoran said the district can request the $5.1 million in relief funds it’s eligible for. 

Board members questioned why the district hadn’t already received funds, but Corcoran said the administrative changes caused delays while the budget was repeatedly recalculated. 

“There’s been a lot of talk in the legislature about why these dollars haven’t been spent because we’re claiming we’re suffering and I agree, it’s just that there’s the administrative burden of having to change what went to private schools and teacher salaries and I only wanted to bite the apple one time, I didn’t want to keep going back with nickel and dimes,” Corcoran said.  

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