January 27, 2022

COVID adds to costs for schools

But data show contractual increases for salaries, health care a larger factor

Photo provided by Cortland Enlarged City School District

Christi Jordan speaks with students recently in a seventh-grade art class at Cortland Junior High School.

School districts spent more money in 2020 than 2019 to teach kids, but the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the largest factor in the increase, federal data show.

Greater Cortland area school districts joined districts across the state and nation in spending more even as COVID-19 radically changed the 2020-21 school year, said educators and the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Yes, COVID protocols have resulted in increased cost,” said Cortland schools Superintendent Bob Edwards in an email referring to the costs of masks, hand sanitizers and other necessary protective equipment. The total, exact costs of COVID safety equipment isn’t available yet, Edwards said.

“We won’t fully understand that until after COVID,” he said.

However, preliminary data from a U.S. Census Bureau survey that examined the 2020 fiscal year showed districts faced increased costs, despite having lower food and transportation costs.

School shutdowns did not lower costs, despite districts not needing to bus as much or incur other costs of in-person teaching (Many districts continued to provide lunches to students). The survey showed that non-COVID related costs, such as contractual teacher raises, more than overcame any potential district savings.

“Increased spending in instruction and teacher salaries offset notable decreases in spending on student transportation and food services in a school fiscal year that included a global pandemic,” according to the survey. “In 2020, as a result of COVID-19, school closures affected at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 U.S. public and private schools.”

“We built the budget last year to prepare for unexpected costs and have been navigating well,” said Superintendent David M. Brown of DeRuyter Central Schools. “I will continue to work with our business official to monitor expenses and have begun to build the ‘22-’23 budget. We will continue to review increasing costs.”

Costs have increased for districts nationwide since at least 2016, according to the Census survey data, and New York school districts had the highest costs of any state from 2016 to 2019, the latest year of finalized data.

In 2019, New York districts spent $25,139 per pupil, up from $22,366 in 2016, while the District of Columbia spent $22,406, Connecticut spent $21,310, New Jersey spent $20,512, and Vermont spent $20,315, according to the May 2021 report.

The median cost per pupil nationwide in 2019 was about $16,000.

RISING TEACHING, BUSING COSTS

“The total budget includes opportunities to continue our rigorous curriculum, maintain arts and athletics, and focus on stability in the years to come,”states the Cortland school district budget statement on its website. “The adopted budget is $50,848,256, an increase of 1.35% from 2020- 2021. Cortland’s proposed budget of $50,848,256 passed, and was approved at 368-112.”

While school lunch, community services and support costs went down in 2020-21 in the Cortland district compared to the previous year, instruction costs and student busing costs increased, according to an audit conducted by the certified public accounting firm Mengel, Metzger & Barr, Co.

Instruction costs — which include teachers salaries, benefits and other costs — increased $2.6 million to $40.1 million in 2020-21. That’s 82.6% of the district’s 2020-2021 expenditures. In the 2019-20 school year, Cortland’s school district paid $37.5 million for instruction.

Student transportation costs increased $131,691 to $1.6 million, or 3.4% percent of the Cortland district’s 2020-21 expenses, according to the audit. In the 2019-20 school year, the district paid $1.5 million to transport pupils.

FOOD, ENERGY AND HEALTHCARE

Food, energy and employee healthcare costs are areas where the Cortland school district faced increasing costs for years, said Donald Chu, a former school board member who served from 2019 to 2021.

“Healthcare for staff has been a big increase even before the current administration,” Chu said.

At Dryden Central School District, the district-paid staff healthcare and dental insurance premiums increased 6%, according to its 2021-22 budget summary. That’s $392,000.

The increasing costs of food and the difficulty of maintaining the supply chain is causing problems for school lunches, said Mike Kreloff, the wholesale sales manager of Cortland Produce, based in Freeville, which supplies food to local schools and restaurants.

Food suppliers bid for contracts with schools, agreeing to provide food for a certain price, Kreloff said. But rapidly increasing, volatile food costs are causing suppliers to lose money when they sell food to schools at their previously contracted price.

“That happens quite often,” he said. “We’re seeing some pricing going up 200, 300%.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration warned in October that heating costs this winter will increase about 30% for all fuels, except electricity, further pinching school budgets.

“As we head into the winter of 2021–22, retail prices for energy are at or near multi-year highs in the United States,” the report states. “The high prices follow changes to energy supply and demand patterns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Heating oil costs are expected to rise 37%, natural gas by 29%, propane by 39% and electricity by 5%.

TECHNOLOGY

Computers for students and staff is another major cost, Chu said.

“Even before the pandemic, the district was pretty far along to get a computer to every student,” he said. Cortland spent $400,000 a year for computers in past budgets. “And that’s just their regular cycle because the computer is only good for about three years.”

When he was a board member, Chu said he advocated using less computers and technology because of the expense. The pandemic changed his mind.

“I had to eat my words because they turned out to be really essential for remote learning,” Chu said.