From the Superintendent: Students, families, staff first as we meet our challenges |
Bethany Ormseth Acting Superintendent
Progress is defined as forward movement towards a destination. For those of us who work in education, the direction we take always leads to more than one destination.
While our primary goal is always to improve student outcomes, it often comes with many other things, some of which are beyond our control.
The most important accompanying factor that continues to be at the forefront of our planning and decision-making over the past year is COVID-19. We’ve been focused on this area since it first hit us, adjusted as we worked to reopen safely, and now plan to return to a pre-pandemic state while meeting needs. of our staff, our students and our families.
It has been a great balancing act with the differing opinions that surround us on a daily basis. This has not been easy. Ultimately, the goal is to do what is best for students, staff and families, because they are the ones who matter most.
Unfortunately, there is a looming new factor resulting from COVID that will soon impact the progress of educators across the state: school funding. Fortunately, KUSD has received support in the form of federal stimulus funds that have allowed us to navigate the pandemic, provide virtual learning, and improve our work and learning environments so we can quickly get back to in-person learning. Unfortunately, these funds have clouded the financial future of districts in the state.
People also read…
In 2021, when lawmakers were working on Wisconsin’s 2021-2023 biennial budget, federal stimulus funds were being touted as a resource and a reason not to increase per-student funding amounts that were so desperately needed. In fact, the change in spending per student for the 2021-23 biennial budget was set at $0 for each of the respective years, providing no increase in revenue. Yet the districts have had to deal with growing expenses.
The misconception that stimulus funds could be used to support schools in the same way as per-student funding or special education reimbursements will catapult many districts, like KUSD, to the financial cliff that was already lurking in the Street corner.
In addition to the daunting financial future, the state continues to experience a declining birth rate and Kenosha County is not immune to this. In fact, KUSD has seen a decline in enrollment caused by the declining birth rate since 2010.
This decline, coupled with the absence of corresponding inflationary increases in spending per student to offset world record inflationary costs, will result in a budget deficit.
Although we have been conservative in our spending over the past 10 years, we have not adjusted staffing to match declining enrollment. We were able to delay adjustments while navigating the pandemic thanks to exemptions allowed in the income cap calculation and savings from changing health care plans in 2019.
Unfortunately, with continually rising costs, declining enrollment and no increase in revenue, we can no longer sustain the current level of staffing. As a school district, the majority of funding received is based on student enrollment and the majority is spent on staff. When the two do not align, it leads to financial problems.
The administration is looking closely at staffing to manage the deficit through attrition, i.e. resignations and retirements, or not filling current vacancies, if possible, as well as other areas of cost savings. We are also looking at ways to use federal funds to offset the impact without causing additional financial pressure down the road.
Although it sounds daunting and, frankly, scary, there’s a beauty to it all. Through all the chaos and change, we emerged from a district stronger and better prepared to face future crises.
We have a staff that is more than dedicated to doing whatever it takes, despite our financial situation, to ensure that our students receive the best education possible. Most importantly, they are working day and night to help our students return to a post-pandemic world while meeting all the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.
This has not been easy. It has been downright difficult, just as it has been difficult for many organizations, businesses and individuals in our community. It is a real hope that one day we can all look back and reflect on how far we have come.
All we can do at this point is hold our heads up high, plan to the best of our abilities, and keep our students at the forefront of every decision. They are our motivation and our inspiration.
Bethany Ormseth is the acting superintendent of the Kenosha Unified School District.