Harrisburg School District Receiver Janet Samuels approved a proposed budget for the 2021-22 academic school year on Monday night, a spending plan that includes federal COVID relief funding.
The $174.7 million budget would remain balanced for another year due to $52.9 million in federal Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds headed towards the district. The one-time dollars would fill a $5.6 million deficit that the district would likely have had otherwise.
There will be no property tax increase this year, although officials warned that they may have to raise taxes in future years.
“That’s a big win for taxpayers in such a difficult year that we are coming through,” said George Longridge, the district’s financial officer.
At the meeting, the district also noted that school board Director Jayne Buchwach has resigned her seat.
This year’s school district budget compares to a $158.2 million 2020-21 budget, which was balanced using a previous round of ESSER funds.
District employee salaries and benefits make up the largest portion of the proposed budget. Longridge said he also expects that charter school costs will increase this year. He attributed this to the district funds that followed many students to cyber charters during the pandemic and to the new PA STEAM Academy charter, which will open this coming school year.
Part of the loss in revenue expected for the district comes from less state basic education funding (BEF) and special education funding (SEF)—large expenses for Harrisburg, according to Longridge. The state has not increased those funds because of the federal money schools are receiving, Longridge said.
ESSER funding is expected to make up for the loss, although it is one-time funding, which comes with possible future challenges, Longridge explained.
The district proposed spending the ESSER funds on items such as academic materials, social-emotional support for students, employee healthcare benefits, COVID testing, food services and HVAC upgrades, among other items. The district is required to spend at least 20% of ESSER funds to address student learning loss, according to the funding guidelines.
“This is an opportunity for our school district to address critical needs,” Longridge said.
However, he issued a warning that the district could face a “fiscal cliff” if the funding isn’t used wisely before it expires in Sept. 2024.
If state funding, such as the BEF and SEF, isn’t increased after the federal funds run out, the district’s budget may suffer, he said.
Longridge compared the current situation to federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding the district received in 2009, following a national recession. After these dollars expired, Harrisburg saw decreased revenue in subsequent years.
The district must also be careful not to use the ESSER funds for ongoing expenses that would be without funding once the money expires in 2024, Longridge said.
The district now will proceed with the budgeting process, holding a virtual public budget workshop on June 14. Officials will seek a final adoption of the budget by Samuels on June 21.
No replacement for Buchwach has yet been announced. School board Director Jim Thompson will fill her spot on the Dauphin County Technical School Advisory Board, the district announced. Buchwach took her seat on the board in December 2019 after she was elected as part of a reformist slate. An appointed replacement would serve the rest of her term.
For more information, visit the Harrisburg School District’s website.
Updated on 06/21/21 to correct the overall budget number.
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