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In Spite of Inflation Concerns, Taxpayers Show Widespread Support for School Budgets

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Even with widespread inflation, rising fuel prices and fears of a recession, communities across the U.S. seem to stand behind public schools. Google searches for various regions from coast-to-coast show school budgets passing, helping to alleviate the concerns of teachers, administrators, parents and school board officials.

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For instance, across the state of New York, 99% of proposed school budgets passed on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. In Mohawk Valley, a region of upstate New York between the Catskills and the Adirondack Mountains, nearly every budget passed by a margin of 70% or more, RomeSentinel.com reported.

Additionally, based on figures from the New York State School Boards Association reported by the RomeSentinel.com, nearly 90% of districts asking residents to vote to break the tax cap for their district also saw those higher budgets pass.

Similarly, 123 out of 124 districts on Long Island, New York, a suburb of New York City, saw their school budgets pass on the first vote.

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In other states, governors are stepping in to ensure K-12 schools receive the funding they need. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom passed legislation that would deliver $128 billion in funding for the 2022-23 school year to California schools. This was a $20 billion increase from a proposal presented five months ago and $35 billion more than the current budget, EdSource.org reported.

Meanwhile, in February 2022, K-12 schools in Arizona were given permission to spend $1.2 billion in funding as the public school spending cap was raised.

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker passed a budget that included a larger school budget of $9.7 billion, as well as funding for early intervention and property tax relief grants to K-12 districts, according to Chicago.chalkbeat.org. “Budgeting for the annual $350 million increase to the evidence-based funding model puts our state one year closer to achieving equitable funding and eliminating disparities in districts statewide,” Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers union, told the website.

“Each state funds schools very differently,” Dr. Bill Christensen explained in an email interview with GoBankingRates. Christensen is a former school superintendent and is currently an executive for a construction management company that services K-12 school capital projects.

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He elaborated on the various processes. “New York State has annual votes that determine the tax levies that schools can include in their budgets. In contrast, other states use more of a formula-based approach to provide an equitable process to funding schools.”

He pointed out that since New York introduced the tax cap formula, budget pass rates have increased.

Weighing the Effects of Inflation on Public K-12 Schools

However, even with budgets passing in districts across New York and other states receiving generous funding from state legislatures, inflation is still a topic weighing heavy on the minds of administrators, teachers, and school boards.

“Inflation has been an ongoing concern,” Christensen said. “A vast number of districts that I work with did plan for inflation. The challenge is the same as with any business, though. The ability to increase ‘revenue’ at the same pace as inflation is very challenging.”

He pointed out that fuel oil is increasing by as much as 100% in some areas. And while that’s typically a small percentage of a budget’s line item totals, it adds up over the year.

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“Additionally, copy paper, custodial supplies and other consumables are seeing increases of 15% to 25% minimum,” he said. “Not to mention availability of some items. This is starting to impact the ‘how’ of procurement and it’s pushing many districts to look at alternative national contracts or even cooperative contracts.”

Mental Health Funding: Needed More than Ever

Another area requiring additional funding post-pandemic is mental health. Emily Sherry, an involved parent and school board trustee in a Hudson Valley, New York, school district, said, “I think one of the biggest and most important investments this year is in student mental health.”

Her district’s 2022-23 budget allocated additional funds for not just academic support but also mental health support.

“I’m hearing that every district is struggling with increased fighting, social media threats, mental health referrals, and educational slide,” she pointed out in an exclusive interview with GoBankingRates.com. “It all goes hand-in-hand.”

Christensen agreed. “There is a growing concern for mental health resources for students. The last couple of years has, in many cases, removed supplemental services that many students need. This has strained a district’s connection to families and students. This strain certainly hits lower socio-economic communities more than others.”

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He noted that federal programs like Title 1, which offers resources for lower income and higher risk groups of students, are stretched to their limits. “There are just not enough services for everyone in need,” he said, pointing out that staffing shortages are one thing, but getting families access to mental health and support programs represents another challenge districts face.

Staffing Challenges and Inflation: Future Concerns

Although K-12 education isn’t yet facing the same staffing shortage as many industries, with job positions at the K-6 level growing as fast as the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if inflation continues it could become a greater concern.  

“Teacher attrition is lower than attrition in other industries and tends to happen between school years, the effects of inflation only emerge as contract talks begin,” according to an article in EducationNext.org.

While school district budgets include teacher salaries and benefits, negotiations are typically done during contract renewal periods. This timing has left teachers in many areas of the country struggling with salaries that aren’t keeping pace with inflation, even as budgets passed to meet projected needs for the 2022-23 school year.

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Teachers across the country are feeling the crunch and expecting it to continue. In one district in Sacramento, California, teachers received a 3% raise only after fighting against the 1% increase that was initially proposed. Rob Cunningham, a math teacher at a charter school in the district, pointed out the increase is “still well short of inflation and, as such, is essentially a pay cut.”

Adding that “inflation has absolutely affected teachers,” he said that, with fewer supplies to go around due to procurement issues and budgets, teachers have to buy more of their own supplies — which are noticeably more expensive.

“We have also been significantly impacted by the rise in gas prices. Overall, teachers are feeling the stress of having less and less buying power over time,” he said.

Christensen agreed that teacher and staff salaries are not likely to keep pace with inflation. “School districts did receive quite a bit of federal monies (depending on where you are and what state) but in many cases that was used for facility upgrades or what we call ‘one-time uses.’ Adding salary for staff is very difficult to do because once it’s added it is not [really] possible to sustain that funding source to maintain those salaries. The tax cap, state aid, and other revenue sources never seem to keep up with expenses.”

However, Christensen remains optimistic that districts across the country will find ways to meet the needs of students and staff, alike, moving forward.

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“Being optimistic is in our educational DNA, but being cautious is our best strategy,” he said. “We all want to believe we are on the back side of the COVID pandemic, but we will be feeling the effects for many years to come. As district leaders we must communicate, service, and most importantly really focus on ‘recovery.’  We know students cannot effectively learn until their hierarchy of needs are met… Children, like all of us, are different following the last couple of years… Priorities need to be adjusted or, at the very least, reviewed.”   

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