State Board of Education asks lawmakers to hold school districts “harmless” for enrollment decreases

“Financially fragile” school districts can’t afford to lose funding during the COVID-19 pandemic if enrollment numbers are lower than projected, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis said Tuesday.

Davis comments came during a meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 to discuss the needs of North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges and universities as they navigate a new school year under a cloud of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State Board agreed earlier this month to ask state lawmakers to hold districts “harmless” for enrollment decreases during the 2020-21 school year.

School leaders worry that families will choose options other than public schools because they are afraid to return to them for in-person instruction; or they are unhappy with a school board’s decision to provide remote-only instruction.

A decline in enrollment is critical for a school district because education dollars follow students. Fewer students would mean a funding decrease at a time when districts must do more to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on public schools.

“We are seeking protection for those districts,” Davis said. “We talked to legislative staff to determine what we could do but was advised that it takes legislative action to protect districts by providing a change in legislation so that their ADM [average daily membership] would not decrease.”

Davis asked that principal pay be held harmless for enrollment losses as well. Principal pay is linked to enrollment numbers.

Rep. Pat Hurley, (R-Randolph), said schools and principals must not be punished for enrollment decreases.

“I talked to the county [Randolph] school superintendent yesterday, these are very important,” Hurley said. “They said maybe even in January they could have a lot of students coming back when home schooling doesn’t work or private school. They definitely need this to stay as it is.”

School districts receive allotments or enrollment-based funding for the 2020-21 school year based on the higher of their 2019-20 actual ADM or their 2020-21 projected ADM, which factors in their trending enrollment increases or decreases.

Under state law, the State Board adjusts enrollment funding for districts whose ADM in the first two months is either 2% or 100 students above or below their allotted number of students.

The State Board wants school districts to keep initial allotments intact even if enrollments are lower than projected.

“What we’re seeking is to not have to make that adjustment,” Davis said.

Davis also laid out more than $122 million in coronavirus-related needs he wants lawmakers to pay for with federal relief money.

The state has between $552 million and $903 million in federal money left to spend on education and other state needs. Public schools community colleges, the UNC system and private colleges and universities asked for a combined $320 million to help with expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The largest share for public schools – about $44.5 million – would go to purchase personal protective equipment for school districts.

“Preparing for full return to our school buildings requires that we develop sufficient supplies and resources now to avoid future shortages and demonstrate our state’s commitment to the health and safety of our students, teachers and staff,” Davis said.

Davis also asked for several funding allocations:

  • $18 million for a special transportation allotment to deliver meals to food insecure students learning remotely and to provide hotspots on school buses to students in rural areas where there is limited internet connectivity;
  • $15 million to provide internet and broadband services to families;
  • $17 million for exceptional children who lost services due to the pandemic;
  • $16.5 million to improve mental health support for students and staff;
  • $5 million for cyber security needed in response to the increase in remote teaching and learning.

Davis also asked for several million dollars to support new teachers and to train staff in the science of reading.

Meanwhile, the UNC system requested $100 million to spend on needs as they arise; community colleges asked for $77 million and private colleges and universities $51 million.

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