ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County schools are planning to reopen on schedule for the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 4, but Director Matt Hixson said last week they're also working on an extensive backup plan if COVID-19 cases spike and the shutdown is extended.
A big part of that backup plan is $1.7 million in federal funding from the CARES Act that the school system is in the process of applying for.
Hixson told the Board of Education at last Thursday's meeting that 20% of the CARES Act funding can be used in the current fiscal year and would be used to reimburse the cafeteria and transportation departments for free student lunch programs that were enacted when the school shutdown occurred in March.
The remainder of the funding would be used to implement a backup plan for the school system in the event schools can't reopen on schedule.
“It would be my desire, above and beyond everything else, to open as usual, with the thought that if there is a ramp-up of (COVID-19) cases in the area that we consider a closure,” Hixson told the BOE. “That's why the CARES Act application requires a backup plan in the event that occurs.”
Part of the CARES Act funding would be used to acquire the technology needed to deliver lessons to children at home, such as portable WiFi devices and Chromebooks.
Hixson said he and his staff are monitoring area health agencies for developments in the COVID-19 situation, and it's too early to make a recommendation to the BOE regarding the proposed Aug. 4 school startup date.
He admitted, however, that he isn't optimistic the next school year will begin on time without a hitch.
“I think we're going to see a spike over the summer,” Hixson said. “I think there's going to be recommendations that we do 'X, Y and Z' to keep students safe, and that's why we're developing alternative plans and getting the technology in place to enact that if we need to.”
Hixson added, “We meet with our regional superintendents every Wednesday, and everybody is in the same boat. Everybody has the same desire to open as usual, but every system is located in a county that's dealing with different numbers and different trends. You see some unrest (protesting) that’s resulting in crowds coming together, and they're saying that's going to cause spikes. There's no rhyme or reason as to making concrete plans at this point.”
Board members Tecky Hicks and Kathy Cradic expressed concern about parents keeping their children at home, even if schools are given the OK to reopen. Hicks said he's heard of large numbers in the county preparing to home school.
If a large number of parents aren't comfortable sending their children to school, Hixson said there's the option of expanding the school system's Virtual Academy online study program using CARES Act funds.
He said, “We probably ought to survey our parents and make sure that a large group of them feel comfortable sending their students back. If not, we probably need to have some of these alternative education plans nailed down, which we're working on.”
Hixson said he is meeting with administrators this week to iron out the final details on those alternative plans, which will be presented to the BOE at a later date.
$4.7 million in saving to balance the budget
Last Thursday, the BOE also voted 7-0 to approve its $71.4 million proposed 2020-21 fiscal year budget using $4.7 million in savings from the undesignated fund balance to balance the general purpose fund; as well as $306,714 in savings to balance the cafeteria budget and $491,461 in savings to balance the transportation budget.
Finance Director Melissa Farmer told the BOE last Thursday, “That ($4.7 million) is an estimate. That is not an actual figure. That's just to balance the budget. It's a projection because we have to use budgeted revenues for maintenance of effort, and then actuals always come in different.”
Farmer noted that the trend has been throughout the years that the actual amount of savings used in a budget is much smaller.
But the 2020-21 budget numbers approved at last Thursday's meeting are likely to change thanks to Gov. Bill Lee's recent decision to pull the previously budgeted 2% teacher pay increases from the state budget.
The BOE has scheduled a special called meeting for Thursday at 4 p.m., when Hixson will present the board with new numbers minus the state's portion of the pay increases, as well as how much the system would save by eliminating the local match to those teacher pay hikes.
Hixson and Farmer are scheduled to present the final school budget to the County Commission's Budget Committee on Monday.
Outstanding cafeteria bills
Hixson reported to the BOE on Thursday that approximately $7,000 in outstanding cafeteria bills will be transferred to the next school year due to the COVID-19 closure and the inaccessibility for parents to pay bills at school.
“That doesn't mean that we're going to forgive it or that it will go away,” Hixson told the board. “That will give us a longer period of time to work with those parents should we reopen in the fall as planned, where those parents will have access to the school sites to pay those bills.”
Hixson noted that there is an online payment option available to parents to pay that bill that costs $2.95 extra per transaction. Hixson said it’s his understanding that some parents hadn't settled their accounts because they didn't want to pay that extra fee.