The Austin Independent School District has spent $7.6 million in the last six weeks addressing changes related to the coronavirus pandemic, including new technology and software for online learning and increased pay for staff on the front lines.
The district and the school board are now preparing a budget for next school year that accommodates continued changes from school buildings being closed and online learning.
Nicole Conley, AISD's chief business officer, told the board Monday night the district’s priorities in this new budget need to be retaining staff and helping students who are affected the most by at-home learning.
She said there are “no safe assumptions” while planning this budget, but said AISD has gotten through difficult financial positions before.
“There is a silver lining,” Conley said. “We have a track record of strong financial management that will allow us to get through this financial challenge.”
Some of the unknowns are making this process tricky. School districts get state funding based on how many students are enrolled, and AISD doesn’t know how COVID-19 will affect enrollment next school year. It’s also hard to predict property tax values, which also fund public schools.
Conley said AISD will need to start pulling money from its reserves to cover costs in the coming years. One thing she is concerned about is state funding. Plummeting oil costs will affect how much money the state has, and she said that could lead to a cut in public education funding in the next few years.
“How do we sort of spend on what we need but also recognize the fact that one to two years out we could maybe see some cuts from the state?” she said.
Conley said keeping staff employed is the district’s main priority right now, but with so many unknowns the district might have to re-think how it approaches hiring. District officials said they want to create a new tool that helps them determine who is needed at each school during the pandemic.