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Kern County schools have soaring budgets to deal with students' great needs

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Since the 2008 recession, state funding to schools has recovered, trending upward. Proposition 98, which was passed by voters in 1988, established a minimum funding level for schools and community colleges. 

What a difference a year has made for K-12 school budgets in Kern County. As districts prepared for the 2020-21 school year last summer, they faced deficits in their budgets and cuts as high as 10 percent while also implementing an unprecedented switch to distance learning.

"Even before the pandemic hit, we were going into a recession," said Sherry Gladin, the assistant superintendent of business services for Bakersfield City School District. "The natural assumption was this would hit state revenues."

Thanks to soaring revenue from personal, sales and corporate taxes exceeding expectations, California's budget found itself with a $100 billion surplus instead of a $54 billion deficit.

Between a flush state budget and several rounds of one-time federal stimulus funding, California's schools are entering the 2021-22 school year with some of the healthiest budgets they've had in ages.

The budget numbers don't look they have in past years, but the work that educators will be doing won't look anything like it has in the past either. 

"We've been through a lot over the 2020-21 school year, and this is truly an opportunity for us to address those needs that are required to ensure the success and academic growth of every single one of our students," said John Mendiburu, associate superintendent at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

To get a sense of the dramatic turnaround, consider the budget of the Kern High School District. In June 2020, the district budgeted $530 million for the 2020-21 school year, down $26 million from the previous year. However, the estimated number ended up being $38 million higher, according to this year's budget. This year the district has budgeted $637 million.

A one-time infusion of pandemic-related funds from sources such as the federal CARES Act and the state's Expanded Learning Grant have already been coursing through local schools to fund more robust summer programming, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and technology for distance learning.

"It’s all additional spending we wouldn't do on a normal basis," said Gladin. 

But these pandemic funds that began coming into school coffers in the 2019-20 year will be available to districts over five years. For BCSD, Gladin estimated that these pandemic funds spread over time so far have added up to $290 million. The district has budgeted $534 million for the 2021-22 year.

"There’s a lot of work to be done on addressing learning recovery," she said.

Districts are trying to figure out the best ways to use this one-time money in ways that will have lasting effects. That could mean updating HVAC systems, which improve air filtration, or building modular buildings that reduce class sizes, Mendiburu said. Districts are also looking at improving connectivity issues in their communities.

Helping students catch up academically through in-person learning has already been a goal at the forefront of many summer programs, and those robust programs are likely to continue beyond this year, too. But Mendiburu said many districts are looking at plans to extend the school day, the school year and the school week with Saturday school.

For instance, BCSD is extending its after-school academies to all students who are interested for the first time, Gladin said. It is also adding more resources for after-school tutoring. 

The Kern High School District will have before- and after-school tutoring programs, weekend classes and community learning hubs, according to Mike Zulfa, associate superintendent of business for KHSD. The district is also extending the school year for its special education students. 

Staff training and professional development is a good use of one-time funds, according to Lakeside superintendent Ty Bryson.

"Developing skills and capacity of personnel within a school district is an investment that will continue to benefit students long after the funding resources used to build that capacity have been depleted," Bryson wrote in an email.

Districts are also giving considerable thought to spending funds on mental health and a social-emotional learning curriculum when students return.

"Everyone recognizes this past year has taken a tremendous toll on the mental health of students and staff," said Bryson. "The trauma caused by the pandemic has affected all of us, and social-emotional well-being is something that will need to be addressed, before we can even begin to address academic learning."

Districts are looking to hire on social workers and psychologists who can come in to help students, Mendiburu said. Some smaller districts in the county are pooling their resources and sharing a social worker.

Both BCSD and KHSD plan to increase spending on classified positions, largely through adding more positions and increasing hours. 

In BCSD, Family and Community Engagement (FACE) liaisons and front office clerks will work 8-hour shifts to improve engagement and outreach, Gladin said. The clerks will also handle the extra paperwork that comes with tracking COVID-19 information. With more students coming on campus, additional custodial staff may be necessary, depending on health guidance.

School budgets are healthy throughout the state, but many Kern County school districts will receive extra state funding, because they have high concentrations of low-income students, English language learners, homeless students and youth in foster care. The state has granted extra funding to these districts, believing that these populations will need extra support in the 2021-22 school year.

Although individual districts range from 28 percent to 98 percent of their students falling into these groups, about 80 percent of students in Kern County fall under this umbrella, Mendiburu said.

In 2021, this segment of BCSD's student population was more than 93 percent, so Gladin expects the district to receive an extra $14 million in one-time funding from the state that is meant to be spent on staff who directly address the needs of these students. The district is discussing whether it's best to put the funding toward instructional or social emotional goals.

Bryson, whose own district has about 1,500 students, said that small districts with low numbers of socioeconomically disadvantaged students struggle with current state and federal funding formulas. The Small School Districts' Association of California is working to change these formulas that he says are slanted toward larger districts with more political influence.

Bryson wrote that these districts "will now struggle to provide the same types of services for their students that larger districts will be providing when school starts in the fall."

School fiscal departments are now in the process of closing out their books for a school year that, at least financially, wasn't the disaster that was predicted. They're also preparing to finalize their spending plan for the upcoming year. Districts passed their budgets in June, but it wasn't until July 12 that Gov. Gavin Newsom finalized the state budget. Districts have 45 days after their budgets passed to share their revisions.