COVID muddies school budget

by Tom Coombe
A report on COVID-related expenses prompted broader questions about the Ely School District’s financial fortunes this week.
With enrollment down and expenses rising because of pandemic-related requirements, outgoing school board member James Pointer pressed for a more complete picture.
“It seems to me the school is spend, spend, spend, where’s the fiscal responsibility here,” said Pointer.
The discussion was prompted by a breakdown of COVID-related expenses incurred by the district.
A breakdown included about $425,000 in additional expenses, more than half for technology upgrades and purchases, and an ample balance of more than $613,000 in revenue.
But Pointer argued the picture was incomplete, given enrollment declines in the district and an assumption that the district will receive a St. Louis County grant of $76,700 that was included in the available revenue.
He charged that the district needs to look at “the big picture financially, not just little pieces here and there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked school districts across the state and nation, forcing many to take on additional expenses for everything from cleaning supplies and technology to additional staff.
The Ely board approved a 1:1 technology initiative this year in order to provide a school-owned device for each student, setting aside $300,000 in reserve funds for the program.
The district also stands to receive about $236,000 in additional COVID-related relief funds and has applied for the $76,700 grant from St. Louis County.
That would cover, leaving about $188,000 to spare, what’s been currently budgeted for additional expenses.
But Pointer noted the calculations don’t take into affect the loss of funds linked to student enrollment.
A report Monday showed that the district has 546 students enrolled in grades K-12, but that includes high school students who are enrolled via the post secondary enrollment options program at Vermilion Community College.
Overall enrollment is also down after climbing to as much as 596 three years ago.
Superintendent Erik Erie indicated some of the identified expenses could rise, noting the hire of additional custodial staff, and the hire of a third-grade teacher that was related to the pandemic.
The district is hoping for additional financial relief from the state.
The Minnesota School Boards Association is pursuing legislation that would essentially hold school districts harmless financially for any enrollment declines from Oct. 1, 2019 to Oct. 1, 2020.
If approved the district’s state funding, which is roughly $7,000 per pupil in basic aid as well as other enhancements, would be equal to what it was in 2019-20.
In other business, the board:
• Approved a project labor agreement that commits the district to paying prevailing wages for construction related to the upcoming $20 million building project.
• Accepted seniority lists presented by the Ely Education Association and AFSCME bargaining units.
• Approved contract agreements with the bargaining unit consisting of superintendent’s assistant Mary Wognum and facilities director Tim Leeson.
• Approved a memorandum of understanding with the Ely Education Association, which details plans for prorated coaches pay in the event a season is cancelled because of the pandemic.
• Hired Caleb Cowden for a temporary custodial position and Sarah Spate, Erika Peterson and Nick Jones for paraprofessional positions.
• Accepted the resignation of longtime girls track coach Jayne Dusich.
• Granted Autumn Boedeker a medical leave of absence.
• Hired Corey Musel as junior high football coach, and Kalley Fischer and Randi Walker as junior high volleyball coaches, and approved assistant football volunteer coaches Matt Koch and Tim Singleton.