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Districts worry about return to attendance-based funding amid COVID-19 absences

Education

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BOISE (IdahoEdNews.org) — School leaders want kids to stay home if they’re sick, think they’re sick, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

But with every student absence, they worry state money is circling the drain.

Idaho’s school districts get the vast majority of their funding based on students’ average daily attendance. That wasn’t the case last year, during the pandemic, when the State Board of Education made an exception to count total enrollment, instead of daily attendance, as kids transitioned between in-person learning, online instruction and a hybrid of both.

The school funding formula is back to normal for 2021-22. Educators were hoping school would be, too.

Nope.

COVID-19 is surging this fall, resulting in high absence rates in some districts and creating a quandary for administrators who typically spend the fall urging kids to get to school.

“We’re out there telling kids, hey, parents, if you’re sick you need to stay home. Well, the more we do that, the more we hurt our funding,” Twin Falls superintendent Brady Dickinson said, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

The average daily attendance of students between now and early November will determine a huge chunk of district funding. Low attendance now affects that average.

In August, Twin Falls saw about 87% attendance rates, compared with 94% in pre-pandemic 2019, Dickinson said. Nampa School District superintendent Paula Kellerer said at a board meeting last week that absences in that district were between 15% and 25%, depending on grade level.

Dickinson has about 300 more students this fall than he did in 2020-21. Usually an enrollment increase translates to a funding increase to cover costs. But if high absence rates continue, Dickinson thinks he could see a funding drop up to the maximum 3% cutback allowed under state law.

“We don’t know what that’s going to look like, whether attendance will continue to drop, whether it will rebound, those are all unknowns,” he said. “It’s more difficult to project where you’re going to be when the dust settles.”

Districts across the state, even those with normal attendance numbers, are concerned about the return to attendance-based funding. Kurt Liebich, president of the State Board of Education, said he’s listening to districts, and watching their attendance numbers closely, but the full board has not discussed potentially changing back to an enrollment-based funding formula, as it did last year.

Such a move would almost certainly stir political turmoil.

“How we fund schools is a legislative action,” Liebich said. “We don’t want to overstep our role in this.”

Last year’s funding change became a talking point in the Legislature’s efforts to incentivize in-person learning during the 2021 school year.br />

Lance Clow, chairman of the House Education Committee, said in floor debate that if the State Board had not enacted the temporary enrollment-based funding rule, “schools would have found ways to get kids back in classroom because they would have lost funding.”

“Because we changed the enrollment, many schools that don’t have anybody in their schools right now are getting full funding as though the kids were there,” said Clow, R-Twin Falls. “I’m not saying that’s good, I’m not saying that’s bad, things are different.”

The enrollment-based change was temporary, expiring before this school year.

Tracie Bent, the State Board’s chief planning and policy officer, said the board is waiting to see fall attendance data to gauge the extent to which absences will impact district funding.

The board would prefer to ask the Legislature, in January, to switch to enrollment-based funding permanently, Bent said. Fall numbers will help the board determine if it needs to take more “drastic” measures, like another temporary rule.

“We don’t want doing something temporary to jeopardize doing something permanent because state policymakers feel like we got out in front of them,” she said. The State Board has made switching to an enrollment-based formula a legislative priority for 2022, and it’s a topic lawmakers have debated many times.

If the Legislature acts on a funding-formula change this year, it could be put in place immediately to still help schools for this school year, Bent said.

Another factor to consider, Liebich said, is whether districts can use federal COVID-19 relief money to help offset a potential funding loss. Idaho districts got hundreds of millions of dollars this year from the federal government, intended to help combat the costs and learning loss during the pandemic.

Dickinson, in Twin Falls, said his district has enough federal money to help cover costs, but he was hoping to use that money to create learning enrichment opportunities for students. Luke Schroeder, Kimberly superintendent, is hanging on to his federal funds until he knows how the 2021-22 budget picture is going to shake out.

At the moment, Schroeder said, Kimberly’s attendance levels are not too bad. But it worries him that big districts like Twin Falls and Nampa could see attendance rates so low they have to rely on a state rule that caps annual funding decreases at 3%.

The 3% protection policy only works because school districts, near the end of each year, pitch in to help cover costs for districts that needed to use that safeguard. Most years it’s a “small haircut,” Schroeder said, because it’s typically small districts that need help covering costs. But if big districts, or most districts, need to engage that 3% cap, the costs will be higher for districts across the state. Schroeder worries that Kimberly will have to help foot the bill at a steeper price than in years past.

Schroeder also points out that this year’s Legislature froze Idaho’s Public Education Stabilization Fund, a rainy-day account to cover excess costs if the Legislature didn’t appropriate enough money for education. If costs run over, districts could end up having to cover them at the end of the year as well.

Schroeder is sitting on his extra federal dollars just in case.

“We’re being very prudent,” he said.

In North Idaho, Lakeland superintendent Becky Meyer isn’t sure yet how her attendance will look this fall. School only started last week. But she’d also prefer to swap back to the enrollment-based numbers to the alleviate pressure of weighing funding needs against student health needs during a contagious pandemic.

If administrators are not so worried about tracking students and attendance they can focus more intently on serving kids in the classroom, and the kids who need to learn from home for whatever reason, Meyer said.

“I feel like it’s really common sense that this is what’s best for kids,” Meyer said of enrollment-based funding. “Let’s all get on the same page. Let’s not fight in the sandbox about territory or who should be in charge of what. Let’s talk about what is really our mission for students and then I think the other pieces will fall away and we’ll do what’s best for kids.”

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