Our school board promised parents two versions of school. Now there isn’t enough money for both.

COVID blew a hole in our district’s budget. Here’s what it’s like to plan when you don’t know what help is coming.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Before letters are emailed to parents and staff, they come to the Derry School Board. Most years, board members like me review a handful a month. This school year started that way, but by November we were receiving many a week, sometimes multiples in a day: a delay in Chromebook deliveries, a letter to remote learners, a bus schedule change, a staff member with COVID-19, a student with COVID-19, a school remote day due to COVID-19. After a while, they all blended together.

Erika Cohen (Courtesy photo)

One, innocently titled “Chromebook letter,” arrived two days before Thanksgiving. In it, the head IT guy warned parents that a Chromebook exploded and caught fire while charging at a student’s home. He advised parents about safely charging laptops and stressed the fire was a solitary event.

I’m sure it was, but that Chromebook was expressing what all of us in Derry — a New Hampshire town of about 30,000 people — felt: We can only keep our cool so long. It’s hard and tiring to protect ourselves from a highly contagious disease. There has been no known in-school transmission of COVID-19 in Derry’s seven schools, serving over 3,000 students in kindergarten to eighth grade, but the community spread has been significant. That Chromebook was our first literal fire. But there have been many figurative ones, and many relate to budgeting.

School board budgets are voted on months in advance, and they dictate what a district can spend the following school year. COVID-19 had just emerged as a threat when we passed our budget in early March 2020. We didn’t budget for extra laptops, because we never imagined sending all of our students into remote learning for months. We didn’t budget for thousands of masks and gallons of cleaning supplies, because we didn’t anticipate a highly contagious virus sweeping through the community.

When school buildings closed and that highly contagious virus came closer, we adapted. We ordered over 1,000 discounted laptops through a government website — until the U.S. government banned that company from selling to schools, citing its labor practices. Our head IT guy found another vendor, but the 800 laptops they could provide us cost the district $66,000 more.

Through the federal coronavirus relief bill, schools nationwide can apply for money to help cover the cost of masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, technology and other COVID-related expenses. We were told that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, would also help, but in September FEMA said it would not cover those costs. Luckily, a state program that provided $200 in funding per student helped cover the cost, as did a supplemental grant for another $900,000.

In Derry, the school board voted to offer two options this school year: in-person school and remote learning. Our remote learning plan, called the Alternative Remote Learning Plan, or ARLP, serves around 400 elementary students and 300 middle school students, about 25% of our total student population. Our remote plan is staffed by different teachers than in-person classes, some staff members and some temporary hires.

Those additional teachers weren’t in the budget either. We couldn’t have the remote students join in-person classes because we had neither the bandwidth nor enough laptops. During emergency remote learning last spring, we had minimal live Zoom classes and posted assignments, but the board and administration agreed that was not a good long-term plan. The administration presented a plan in November showing how and when students would transition back to in-person learning. 

It was then that the administration told the board that the ARLP costs $19,000 a week and would increase by $4,000 a week for retirement contributions come January — once the state no longer deemed the additional remote employees temporary. Plus, the teachers hired to staff ARLP were finding permanent jobs elsewhere, and we have struggled to replace them. 

That presentation filled my inbox with emails from frustrated parents who didn’t want their kids going back to school amid the pandemic. They said the board had voted for the remote learning option and they wanted to keep it. They didn’t like the idea of their children Zooming into their classrooms, where their in-person peers were learning. I told frustrated parents to come to the next school board meeting to express their concerns and ask questions. I, too, had questions.

The second presentation did not assuage people’s frustrations. I personally hadn’t realized the remote option would change over time, but I now understood why it had to. The administration couldn’t understand the parents’ anger. They thought parents wanted what they had months earlier: to be connected with their home school. But many parents preferred the separate online learning plan and the connections with their remote teachers.

The frustration boiled down to problems I had encountered many times on the board: desires that exceed our budget and a communication breakdown. At the school board meeting, I stuck to the facts, a tactic I learned during years communicating with parents and the community over Facebook. I said the plan was not sustainable fiscally or staffing wise. One parent said kids are worth the money and the alternate learning plan should continue. The audience cheered.

I, too, preferred the plan, but money has to come from somewhere, and most of the federal programs helping to pay for COVID-19 related expenses, as of this writing, limit expenditures to 2020. Including all of the federal and state emergency funding received, the district to date has still spent about $400,000 for COVID-related costs that are not in our $92 million budget this school year. Parents were therefore angry, but not surprised, when the administration announced early this month all students would go remote Dec. 14 and the separate remote program would end.  

If all that wasn’t bad enough, discussions are simultaneously ongoing for the 2021-22 budget, and it isn’t looking good. Revenues are down and costs are up. Example No. 1: Five years ago, the district was responsible for about 15% of staff retirement costs; this coming year it is 21%. So although our headcount fell by about 40 over that time, retirement costs increased $1.5 million. Example No. 2: We tuition high school students to a private nonprofit regional high school that serves multiple towns and have no say over costs. Over the last five years, our student enrollment has decreased, but tuition costs increased — costing our district over $3 million extra.

Those are just two examples. As hard as it is to create a proposed budget that meets students’ needs and voter approval (as some voters want the lowest possible number), we are also actively managing a crisis budget. Our middle school students went remote for the month of December to alleviate staffing issues and allow elementary students to remain in school longer. The ARLP plan ends Dec. 23 and students will remain remote until Jan. 15. Will our students be back in school by mid-January? Will the federal government come through with more emergency funds for schools?

I can’t answer these questions. I can only make an educated guess. I used to spend days seeking answers before replying to people. Now I give the facts I know and work to get more. In times of crisis, people want honesty. The truth isn’t always comforting, but it’s a lot better than the alternative.  

Erika Cohen is in her fifth year on the Derry School Board and currently serves as its secretary. She has two children, a fifth grader and an eighth grader, in the Derry schools. Erika works as an independent writer, editor, and ghostwriter.