The State Board of Education (SBE) agreed Thursday to ask state lawmakers to hold public schools financially harmless if they lose students due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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 means a funding decrease at a time when districts must do more to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on public schools.
SBE Chairman Eric Davis said that only the General Assembly can adjust state law to prevent school districts from losing funding due to a drop in average daily membership (ADM).
Generally, the state funds school using a calculation based on its average daily membership or student attendance. ADM is determined on the 20th and 40th day of the school year.
The board agreed to ask lawmakers to pass legislation so school districts won’ be penalized for enrollment decrease during the 2020-21 school year.
“This would include seeking authority to pursue changes to legislatively mandated reductions in initial allotments to mitigate the impact of the unpredictable effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on student enrollments for the 2020-21 school year,” Davis said.
The pandemic has required many districts to create virtual academies for families who don’t feel it’s safe to return to schools for in-person instruction.
“We’re facing unprecedented uncertainty, and as we do that, I think we have to recognize that we may have to build new systems to support those things that we’re encouraging districts to do,” said Anthony D. Jackson, superintendent of Vance County Schools.
As the state Superintendent of the Year, Jackson serves as an adviser to the SBE.
He said state education leaders must not exacerbate equity issues exposed by the pandemic.
“At some point, we’re all going to come back face-to-face,” Jackson said. “My concern is that I’m not going to have the resources at my disposal to meet the social and emotional needs of my students and my staff when that happens.”
He said school districts need funding and operational flexibility.
“I would ask for us to be very flexible and to find some level of balance between fiscal prudence and operational grace as we talk about putting these systems back together,” he said.
Any reduction in funding would hit low-wealth districts hard, said Matthew Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School and state Principal of the Year.
“The ability that we have to serve young people, particularly in areas that are marginally resourced on under-resourced are directly linked to this outdated funding mode,” said Bristow-Smith, an SBE adviser.