Based on the state’s anticipated budget cuts due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Fulton County Schools district is getting ready for a big hit to its own $1 billion budget.
“It’s no surprise … this school district and the others across the state are making preparations to have a significant decrease in revenue, 14% in fact, Mike Looney, the district’s superintendent, said of estimated state budget cuts that have increased from an earlier approximation of 10%. “We put in efforts to increase the district’s fund balance. While the 14% cut will hurt, the board has positioned us well, so we have no need to furlough employees to deal with this. We’re in good shape because of the board.”
Looney and other district leaders spoke on the budget and other pandemic-related matters at the Fulton Board of Education’s May 14 meeting. It was held virtually because of the outbreak.
Marvin Dereef, the district’s chief financial officer, said Fulton will know more about its own budget cuts once the Georgia General Assembly, which plans to resume its pandemic-suspended session June 11, gets closer to passing its own budget.
“We don’t have anything definite to report, but as you know, they need to have concrete revenue projections,” he said. “When they see the next month’s revenues and sales, they may need to make adjustments.”
Dereef said the district may have to use at least $36 million of its $231 million reserve fund to offset any budget cuts. Similarly, the state is planning to dip into a large chunk of its $2.7 billion reserve fund to fill its budget gaps.
The board must approve the district’s 2020-21 budget by June 30, when the current fiscal year ends. But it is expected to pass it tentatively at its June 9 meeting and then give its final vote of approval at its June 25 one.
“Our goal is to not have you do a spending resolution,” Dereef said to the board. “We want to put us in a position to help our fund balance. What we’re hoping how is the worst-case scenario for the budget assessment. We are also in communication with the Fulton County Tax Assessors’ office about taxes.”
Dereef said the $18.3 million Fulton is getting from the U.S. Department of Education, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Security (CARES) Act as its share of Georgia’s $457.2 million, will have to be moved from the district’s general fund to a separate account. That news worried District 3 board member Gail Dean.
“It’s really going to affect the long-term projections on our long-term reserve funds,” she said.
Chief Information Officer Serena Sacks said the district has set up about 1,000 wifi hotspots to provide internet service for students taking classes online from home and paid for through grants, but more are essential.
“A need for over 1,600 hotspots has been identified. As Dr. Looney mentioned, we’re working on finding funding through grants and donations to make this happen.”
At a meeting where all seven board members talked about each district high school’s virtual graduation ceremony that will put a cap on a school year that saw each elementary, middle and high school take classes online since mid-March due to the virus, some members expressed concerns about plans for the 2020-21 academic year.
One of those strategies is to continue online learning, go back to regular, in-person classes or use a combination of both.
“Right now, we are looking at Scenario 2 and Scenario 3 on our plan,” Looney said. “We hope to use Scenario 1, which would be traditional (in-person) learning. Scenario 2 would be remote learning and Scenario 3 would be a hybrid of the first two.”
District 5 board member Linda McCain said Scenario 3 may not be the best idea.
“I’m starting to get a lot of pushback (from constituents) already on the hybrid model,” she said. “I’m anticipating the staff is looking at these different models, but we’ve got children on one schedule and their parents working on another. We’re getting a lot of nervousness on that already.”