York County school districts' bottom lines hit hard by COVID-19

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Principal Michael Snedden welcomes students to York Suburban Middle School as they return for the first time in six months following the COVID-19 shutdown, Wednesday, August 19, 2020. Sixth and ninth grade students started a day earlier than the rest of the district due to moving up to bigger schools.
John A. Pavoncello photo

The COVID-19 pandemic has been costly to many public school districts, and the level of damage has yet to be determined. 

West York Area School District received about $800,000 in state and federal funding for COVID-19 relief. 

"That's not at all enough," Superintendent Todd Davies said.

West York's biggest needs are similar to many other districts throughout York County. The district was not prepared to move to mass online learning, and in the spring it transitioned to a "1-1 system," equipping each student with a remote learning device, Davies said. West York also added expenses paying for its students to attend cyber charter schools and filling staffing gaps. 

The additional expenses not covered by state or federal aid will come out of the district's savings in its fund balance, Davies said. West York business manager Sheri Schlemmer estimated the district is about $1.4 million over budget on cyber charter costs alone. 

Several other officials from school districts across York County agreed that the level of coronavirus relief funds from the state and federal government has not been enough to cover their biggest needs. 

The Pennsylvania General Assembly decided in November that $1.3 billion in federal CARES Act funding, which could have partially been allocated to schools, would instead be used to plug holes in the state budget. In September, the federal government rejected Pennsylvania's plan to distribute $300 million across local school districts. 

Pennsylvania's public school districts were set to be allocated about $600 million in CARES Act funding, according to Stephen Herzenberg, executive director for the Keystone Research Center. Two-thirds of that funding was distributed based on need by the federal government, but the state Legislature decided to distribute the majority of the remaining $200 million based on the number of students in each district. 

The result of the decision meant that districts with the highest poverty rate and biggest needs received less funding per student than districts that had more resources, Herzenberg said. The distribution of funds also disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic students, he said.

“There’s a tone deafness to the distribution of these funds that is stunning," Herzenberg said at a Monday news conference. 

The York City School District has the third-highest number of households in poverty in Pennsylvania and the seventh-highest percentage of Hispanic students, according to the Keystone Research Center. The district enrolls many English language learners who attend class in person while the majority of students attend school remotely, Superintendent Andrea Berry said. 

Spokesperson ShaiQuana Mitchell said the district was approved for $4.3 million in state and federal COVID-19 relief, and the district plans to apply for grants totaling about $445,000 in additional funds.

The district had already spent more than $2.8 million to address COVID-19 needs by Nov. 30, Mitchell said. The pandemic is ongoing, with an uncertain endpoint.  

Berry said the state and federal aid may not be enough to support all of the district's needs.

"We could have definitely utilized more," Berry said. 

The York City School District superintendent Dr. Andrea J. Berry recognizes 45 teachers as "Shining Star" teachers whose students exceeded academic growth expectations. This celebration is an opportunity to reinforce the districtÕs focus on academic growth as a measure of success in the classroom and the districtÕs commitment to high-quality instruction for all students. 
Monday, December 16, 2019 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Berry said much of the district's expenses came in getting to a 1-1 system, which was not a priority for the district before the pandemic. 

The York City district is in the middle of a financial recovery process and earlier this year made major budget cuts, eliminating 44 positions. Berry did not mention using money from the district's fund balance for additional support and instead said the district plans to apply for more federal grants. 

Northern York County School District Superintendent Steven Kirkpatrick said his district was awarded about $620,000 in state and federal COVID-19 relief, but that amount won't cover all their needs. 

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Most of the expenses the district added because of COVID-19 are related to online learning, such as purchasing digital devices to get the district to a 1-1 system, or paying for students to attend a cyber charter school, Kirkpatrick said. Northern York has its own virtual academy but, like many other local districts, it partners with a charter school that offers online learning. The district pays for its students to attend the charter. 

Kirkpatrick said about 115 of his district's 3,200 students attend a cyber charter school, while about 400 attend the district's virtual academy. He said the district has spent nearly $3 million to cover online schooling expenses. 

With a lack of state funding, Kirkpatrick said, the district tapped into its fund balance to access savings previously set aside for a "rainy day."

South Eastern School District Superintendent Nathan Van Deusen said his district was awarded more than $600,000 in state and federal support over a three-year period starting this school year, which helped pay for technology. He said finding substitutes to fill absences when teachers have to quarantine is also taking a huge financial toll on the district. 

Van Deusen said the district needs more state funding; otherwise officials there will have to consider dipping into the fund balance as well. 

"Obviously, more is always needed," Van Deusen said. 

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Dover Area School District spokesman Bradly Perkins estimated the district received more than $830,000 in federal and state COVID-19 relief. Superintendent Tracy Krum said that's not enough to meet the district's needs. The district is currently about $900,000 over budget just on cyber charter expenses.

"It's a huge budget hit this year," Krum said. 

Krum said the district did not take funds from its current budget to address the needs brought by the pandemic, which means the needs will be covered in next year's budget. She said the district has a "healthy fund balance" it can access, but she is concerned about how the funding needs might impact staff in the upcoming budget. 

COVID-19 expenses will likely have a similar impact on other districts as officials craft their 2021-2022 budgets, which must be adopted by June 30. Davies said the severity of the damage to his district and others will depend on how long the pandemic lasts and how much districts take out of their fund balances. There is no indication the state Legislature or Congress will pass a new aid package. 

Spring Grove Area School District received more than $650,000 in state and federal COVID-19 relief, according to spokesperson Stephanie Kennedy. Superintendent George Ioannidis said so far the funding has been enough to meet current needs, but he won't know the full financial impact on the district until officials consider next year's budget. 

Ioannidis said his biggest concern is filling staffing gaps as more employees go into quarantine. He said the problem affects more than just teachers, as other staff such as teaching assistants and bus drivers are also in high demand. That poses a bigger operational challenge for the district than a financial issue, he said.