LINESVILLE — Thanks to federal stimulus money received during the COVID-19 pandemic, Conneaut School District is projecting a balanced budget for the 2021-22 school year with no tax increase, though structural deficits remain a concern for future years.

In a presentation before school board members at their meeting Wednesday, Business Manager Greg Mayle went over a draft of the plan, which has revenue and expenditures at $44.7 million. Comparatively, last year's budget was balanced at $50.4 million — though that unusually high number is mainly due to a nearly $10 million bond refinance — while the 2019-20 budget ended with a $477,611 deficit with $39.2 million in revenue.

Without the stimulus funds, Mayle said the budget for next year would have a nearly $1.3 million deficit, with $39.7 million in revenue. Those figures are accounting for spending line items the school district would not have pursued if it did not have stimulus funds.

"You'll hear me say a million times between now and June, but we're not actually balanced in terms of a year-to-year comparison," Mayle said. "It's stimulus funds and federal money that's balancing us out."

Conneaut will receive almost $10 million across the three waves of stimulus money. The majority of that will come from the third stimulus disbursement, which was under the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden. Conneaut is projected to receive around $6 million from the third stimulus.

In long-term planning, Mayle is calling for the school district to spread out the spending of its federal stimulus money over the next several years, finishing up in the 2024-25 school year. Nearly $5 million of stimulus money will be spent in the 2021-22 school year, while stimulus spending will be more modest over the next three years, projected at $1.4 million for 2022-23, $1.7 million for 2023-24, and $771,989 for 2024-25, when funds will run out.

While the stimulus money means Conneaut may be able to avoid deficits, or at least any large ones, for the next couple of years, Mayle cautioned the board to not ignore the deficits, which would exist if those extra dollars weren't there.

"That's a number that's very important to keep an eye on," he said, "because it's great to have the stimulus money, it's great to be balanced for the next few years, but when this money dries up, we don't want to have a cliff that we're looking at where we let this deficit get out of hand too many years and it's ballooned into something that's a bit more unmanageable." 

Explaining why, if he's concerned about revenue in the future, that the 2021-22 budget does not include a tax increase, Mayle said he wants to use the coming year as a "wait-and-see" year to get a sense of how finances will look once the district is out of the pandemic.

With stimulus money lasting until 2024-25, Mayle said he feels confident that Conneaut will be able to address the issues with revenue even if nothing is explicitly done about them in next year's budget.

"That gives us three years after next year to take a look a look at how things are shaking out," he said. "So we can get into next year, see what hopefully normal looks like again, see where we're at, and then still have time to make a three-year plan to get us back on track coming out of stimulus money."

Mayle said he would not recommend starting revenue building any latter than after next year, but felt the coming school year was too early to institute such plans.

In terms of stimulus money spending for next school year, many of the proposed line items are one-time expenses. For example, Mayle called for spending $355,000 on new cafeteria equipment, tables and chairs for some of the schools. Meanwhile, $236,741 is budgeted for purchases and spending on classroom technology, such as for Chromebooks.

Other major expenses include nearly $1.1 million for use in capital projects.

One significant area of spending is in the Conneaut School District cyber program. Mayle plans to utilize $778,353 of stimulus money for the next school year on the cyber program. In total, the budget calls for $869,751 in spending on the cyber academy. That is much higher than pre-COVID spending of $270,585 in 2019-20, but lower than the 2020-21 spending of $1,021,113.

Many changes are planned for the cyber academy as it transitions out of a school year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the current school year, the academy was only offered to students in grades seven through 12, while it was expanded to all students in 2020-21.

For next year, the academy will be pared back to only grades seven through 12, with synchronous and asynchronous capabilities, meaning students will have the option whether to attend cyber school according to a schedule or on their own time.

However, Mayle called for the hiring of full-time staff members to the academy, including for a supervisor position.

"The feeling is that the program has grown to a level where it's appropriate to have full-time staff," he said.

Additionally, $50,000 will be spent to establish "cyber lounges" at Conneaut Lake and Conneaut Valley middle schools, each manned by a full-time staff member. These lounges will offer a physical location for cyber students to go to for a variety of needs. The library at the high school already serves that function, so no additional money needs to be spent there.

Students attending cyber charter schools represent a major drain on the school district's resources. Mayle is projecting anywhere between 85-90 students attending cyber charter schools next year, which will cost the district $1.35 million. Comparatively, the school district had only 71 students attending cyber charter schools before the pandemic.

Moving forward, the school board will hold its first vote on the budget at a May 5 special voting meeting held after the work session that day. Final approval will occur at the June 9 voting meeting.

Sean P. Ray can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at sray@meadvilletribune.com.

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