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Perspective | Public schools must have resources to meet current and future needs

Editor’s note: The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the Aug. 29, 2020 broadcast of Education Matters — “Short-and long-term impacts on our public schools.” 


We have known for a long time that public schools provide a wide range of services and support for our students in order to meet the needs of the whole child. In this pandemic, more than ever, we have seen the importance of schools serving as a hub for our families and communities. Today we learned the complexities of providing options for families and students, while also adjusting and adapting to new learning environments while working to meet the diverse needs of our students.

Last year, our state developed a budget for each school district based upon the expected number of students, using those numbers as the basis for establishing funding levels for the 2020-21 school year. Using these budgets, district leaders put plans into place to have a certain number of teachers and staff in place, purchase technology and devices, and incur other instructional costs.

Sometimes, a district’s budget may change slightly based upon the number of students in the schools during the first and second months or a school year; but these funding adjustments are usually small. COVID-19 presents a potentially significant shock to budgets. We are hearing from school leaders that larger numbers of families are opting out of public schools temporarily while we are all working through the challenges that this pandemic presents.

Having fewer students in our public schools destabilizes budgets and makes it more challenging than ever before to equitably ensure every child can access a sound basic education.

Our school boards and district leaders manage significant, multi-million dollar budgets. They lead organizations with a large number of staff members and responsibilities. In many counties, our school districts are one of the largest employers.

They must have stable and dependable budgets to keep students and staff safe and learning. With the constantly evolving situation and the needs of the whole child, our schools must be focused on keeping students and staff safely engaged in effective learning environments. This means being able to make the right decisions at the right time as we progress through this school year.

With so many changes and unpredictable aspects of this school year coming at us while we work to accommodate the needs of our students and staff, budgets are one area that we can actually provide some stability.

There are three ways to accomplish this:

First, we must hold school district budgets harmless if the number of students as determined by Average Daily Membership decreases. The funds for schools for 2020-21 have already been appropriated, so let’s ensure our superintendents can rely on having those dollars so they can meet unexpected costs associated with remote and hybrid learning and putting the safety protocols into place.

Second, we must provide opportunities for districts to use the funding they have to meet the safety and learning needs of all students. Each district has its own complexities and changing needs. Let’s ensure that local school superintendents have autonomy when deciding how to use different funding streams to address the needs of their school communities this year.

Finally, schools will need additional funding to cover the needs of students and keep students and staff safe in this COVID-19 world. We need to continue to identify and quantify the additional needs that arise in our schools and encourage our federal and state leaders to provide funding relief that our schools desperately need.

School and district leaders consistently strive to meet the needs of students, including their unique needs and in their own contexts. They understand how to manage their funds efficiently to do the most they can with the budgets that they have.

We want our leaders focused on our kids, on their safety and their learning. We are fortunate to live in a state that has prepared for challenging times, and this preparation enables us to ensure that school budgets are the one constant of this school year – that and, of course, the dedication everyone is demonstrating to each and every one of our students.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.