Eau Claire school district Administration Building

Eau Claire school district Administration Building, 500 Main St.

The Eau Claire school district is projected to save millions this spring due in part to a statewide school shutdown, lower transportation costs and filling fewer open positions during the closure.

The coronavirus-related shutdown is likely the big reason behind a potential $4 million surplus in the district’s 2019-20 budget, school officials said Thursday at a budget meeting.

“We’re looking at a positive to our fund balance of about $4.1 million,” said Abby Johnson, executive director of business services. “Those are some big dollars.”

But officials warned that the surplus could be quickly eaten up if the district outfits students and teachers with iPads and laptops for at-home learning this fall — or if the Legislature decides to cut some state aid for school districts.

The district’s potential surplus is only projected at this point. Consensus on the 2019-20 budget balance won’t come until an August audit, Johnson said.

The possible surplus would flow from two areas: a $1.8 million savings on employees’ salaries and benefits, and a $1.9 million savings on contracted services, including student busing.

“We haven’t transported children since the middle of March,” Johnson said.

The district hasn’t filled many open staff positions while schools are closed, she added. Some open positions may have also been filled by substitutes instead. Classrooms have also saved about $325,000 on supplies since students were sent home in March.

It means the district’s 2019-20 budget will likely come in at $159.8 million instead of $163.9 million.

“It’s unexpected,” Johnson said. “When we build our budget, we say, ‘here’s what we think is going to happen,’ and this year has been nothing we expected.”

Costs on the horizon

But if it comes, a $4 million budget surplus for Eau Claire schools could be quickly snapped up for students and teachers who need at-home-learning devices — or to shore up the district’s budget if the state cuts school funding for 2020-21.

If the state Legislature reduces per-pupil funding, it could throw the Eau Claire school district — the eighth largest in the state — into a multimillion-dollar deficit, Johnson said Thursday.

Under the state’s 2019-21 biennial budget, Wisconsin school districts are slated to get an extra $179 in per-pupil funding for the 2020-21 school year.

But the novel coronavirus has caused economic fallout statewide this spring. If lawmakers cut the additional $179 per pupil and keep that funding flat for 2020-21, it could mean a $1.4 million deficit for the Eau Claire school district next year, Johnson said. If the Legislature reduces aid by $200 per pupil, the district would likely see a $3.7 million deficit. (Both of those scenarios include new federal funding for school districts from the CARES Act signed into law in March.)

Johnson said she’s not confident districts will get the additional $179 in per-pupil funding, as the state budget currently dictates.

“Right now (the budget) looks really good because we don’t know what the unknown is,” she said of the possible $4 million surplus. “But if the Legislature comes in and says we’re reducing by $200 per pupil, that surplus is going to be eaten up really quickly.”

State aid was nearly 52% of the Eau Claire school district’s total revenue in the 2017-18 school year, according to a May report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

There’s another potential significant cost facing the district this year, if schools stay closed in the fall.

To make sure every student, teacher and staffer has a laptop or internet-connected device to take home and use for virtual teaching, the district would have to spend almost $5 million, said Jim Schmitt, executive director of teaching and learning.

Eau Claire students in third through sixth grade have assigned iPads to take home while schools are closed, Schmitt said. But in every other grade, devices are shared among students.

“This would level the playing field,” Schmitt said of the $5 million figure. “This would fill the gaps and put a device in every student’s hands … we’d be fully mobile.”

Ensuring laptops for students in seventh through 12th grade alone would cost the district roughly $1.9 million. It would also mean 1,829 iPads for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, and 1,693 for first- and second-graders.

The Eau Claire school board hasn’t yet made a decision on whether the fall semester will be virtual, in-person or a blend of both. But Schmitt said Thursday that if classes are even partially virtual in the fall and every student doesn’t have a device, they will struggle.

“The closure did make it very clear to us that we posted activities for kids, but if you didn’t have a device to connect to that, as a parent you would struggle,” Schmitt said. “Some of the interaction between our staff and families is very dependent on the family having a device.”

The Eau Claire school board is next slated to meet on July 20.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter