YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Seven months after a pandemic altered the educational landscape, Lakeland and Yorktown schools are working to make sense of their financial future.
Collectively, the two school districts have already spent nearly a million dollars on personal protective equipment, such as face masks, hand-washing stations, protective barriers, hand sanitizer and cleaning equipment.
Neither district has quantified the exact cost of all COVID-related expenditures, which should be made clearer in the upcoming budget season, but both have also invested heavily in technology; not just hardware purchases and upgrades (Chromebooks, tablets, document cameras), but on bolstered bandwidth to meet the increased demand for virtual learning.
Health offices are also seeing a need for increased staffing. Though Lakeland eliminated four library clerk positions, for example, the eight health aides it hired resulted in a net $200,000 additional cost, according to the district.
School districts have received some aid through the federal CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress in March, but it won’t come close to filling the gap, especially if the expected 20 percent cut in state aid holds true. For the 2020-21 school year, that would mean a loss of $3.2 million in Yorktown and a loss of $9 million in Lakeland, the districts said.
“We’ll have to run an operational deficit and plug the hole with whatever cash we have on hand,” said Tom Cole, assistant superintendent for business in Yorktown schools. “Right now, frankly, that’s the biggest threat on the horizon.”
New York began withholding aid in the fourth quarter of the 2019-20 school year, which resulted in a $700,000 loss for Lakeland and a $250,000 loss for Yorktown. The state has also paused grant payments, even those previously approved, such as funds for a new scoreboard in Yorktown.
Cole praised the work of his colleagues but said it’s not possible to make up the losses from an operational standpoint. School district budgets are somewhat inflexible because most costs are budgeted to cover labor-related expenses, which are often insensitive to changes in the economy. Nearly all possible spending reductions have been made, Cole said.
“We scrutinize every expenditure before it’s made,” Cole said. “We make sure it’s absolutely critical to the mission that we have in front of us. We have taken money from just about every piece of this budget that we can to support the COVID preparedness that we’ve had to engage in.”
Lakeland, for example, furloughed 140 employees (bus drivers, school monitors and food service staff) who have since been rehired. The district also canceled some contracts and delayed filling some positions. In Yorktown, some savings, accrued in such areas as electrical use, were also carried over from the end of last school year to the beginning of this school year.
For this year, neither district anticipates raising the tax levy above the state-mandated cap. However, Cole “Moving forward will be another discussion.”
“We find ourselves in a rather precarious position trying to move into the future not knowing whether our revenue streams are solidified or not,” Cole said.
The Lakeland School District, in an email, said it is ready for anything.
“Since the external forces are so fluid, we are prepared to roll with the punches and do whatever is needed to keep Lakeland financially healthy.”
It has budgeted for a 10 percent reduction in state aid. Anything greater than that amount will force the district to dip into its reserves.
Dr. Ron Hattar, superintendent of Yorktown Schools, said he was proud of the work that has been done to reopen schools, from the custodial staff to the administrators.
“Our faculty and staff have taken some really daunting and challenging circumstances and they have created an environment for children that is inviting, is nursing, is supportive, and I am so proud of the work that they have done,” Hattar said.