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Turlock, Denair schools plan for budgets boosted by COVID relief

After the coronavirus pandemic kept local school districts on their toes last year when it came to budget planning, expected revenue for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year paints a much more stable picture — with the possibility of more funding to come. 

Turlock Unified School District Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Accountability Marjorie Bettencourt presented the tentative budget to the Board of Trustees during their meeting on Tuesday night, pointing out that while its planning process began in January, an unanticipated surge in state revenues and robust federal stimulus funding meant Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans for education spending have improved since the beginning of the year.

With the Governor’s May Revise came a $75.7 billion surplus in the state budget’s general fund, up from a $54 billion deficit the year prior. This also meant a $17.7 billion three-year increase in Newsom’s January estimates of the 2021-2022 Proposition 98 guarantee, which currently sits at $93.7 billion.

TUSD will tentatively operate on a general fund of $178,750,991 next year, 81% of which comes from the Local Control Funding Formula, or $144,885,635. Bettencourt added that TUSD will also receive approximately $28.2 million in one-time COVID funding, but it likely won’t be accounted for in the budget until it goes before the Board for adoption at the next meeting as the district awaits more information.

“Information is coming out almost on a daily basis as we speak about this,” Bettencourt said. 

A major component of the LCFF is the Local Control and Accountability Plan — a three-year spending plan that outlines the goals, actions, services and expenditures of the district which address state and local priorities while promoting student success. Bettencourt also presented this plan to the Board on Tuesday, along with its three-year goals and high priority actions. The 2021-2024 LCAP was developed with input from students, staff, parents, and community members. 

In addition to providing early literacy/reading specialists and reinstalling campus college and career counselors, high priority actions for 2021-2024 also include a bridge program at Dutcher Middle School, transportation to choice schools like Walnut Education Center and Osborn Two-Way Immersion Academy and trainings and/or presentations for students and staff pertaining to equity, inclusion and anti-racism.

When taking into account expenditures for the year, TUSD’s 2021-2022 tentative budget will result in 9.63%, or $18.6 million, in reserves for the district, well above the Board-required 5% minimum and the state-required 3%.

“Higher reserve levels are considered fiscally prudent, affording districts and their governing board time to thoughtfully identify and implement budget adjustments over time,” Bettencourt said.

Denair Unified School District will also benefit from extra state and federal COVID relief money in their budget this upcoming school year, as trustees were presented with a proposed $18.2 million budget for the 2021-2022 school year. The budget includes $2.33 million in extra state and federal assistance due to the pandemic, which will mostly be spent on one-time expenses like textbooks, school supplies and technology rather than be dumped into ongoing items like staff salaries.

The upcoming budget also anticipates California finally beginning to catch up on what it owes public schools in payments deferred during the pandemic. The Cost-of-Living Allowance – a “mega-COLA” in the words of Chief Business Official Linda Covello – is projected to be 5.07%, much higher than in normal years.

Covello told trustees she planned conservatively when projecting for enrollment and other areas, as much could change between now and when the school budgets must be approved, before July 1. 

Still, the proposal 2021-22 budget – which trustees are expected to take action on at a special meeting June 10 – is quite a bit different from the bare-bones $14,539,016 spending plan enacted in June 2020 when all the financial implications of the COVID crisis were still uncertain. That budget projected spending about $800,000 less than the year before while dipping into reserves by $151,000.

Contrast that to the situation now, when Covello anticipates the district will finish the next school year with a fund balance of $1,471,443.

“It’s likely we’ll have carryover COVID relief funds from federal and state since we won’t spend them all next year,” she said.

As in most years, most of the proposed 2021-22 budget is devoted to people – salaries and benefits account for 75% of the spending. If not for the extra government money, that share would be closer to 80%, Covello said.

Despite an uptick in new residential construction within the district’s boundaries, Covello is planning for an increase of just three students across the district’s four campuses. The proposed budget projects Average Daily Attendance will be 1,256 students.

“It’s a conservative number that doesn’t really account for any growth we may have,” she said. “We also know some students left the district last year because of COVID. We don’t know how many of them may come back.”

When classes resume in August, Superintendent Terry Metzger expects almost all students to return to campus. When Denair reopened classes for face-to-face instruction in mid-April, about 85% of students returned. The rest remained on distance learning.

In the next school year, distance learning for all grade levels will be coordinated through Denair Charter Academy, Metzger said. DCA offers homeschooling for K-8 students and independent study for high school students.

Metzger also said bus service will resume in August for students who qualify.