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Iowa District to Spend Up to $5M Addressing Learning Loss

Cedar Rapids Community School District will spend up to $5 million over the next two years on options such as summer school or after-school programs for helping students who fell behind during the pandemic.

by Grace King, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa / March 11, 2021
School closings are having a ripple effect on the lives of vulnerable families.

(TNS) — The Cedar Rapids Community School District plans to spend up to $5 million over the next two years addressing a "learning loss" among students who were driven from classrooms by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $4 to $5 million directed toward that could be used for expanding summer school and increasing after-school learning opportunities.

The district's enrollment dropped by about 600 students this academic year because of the pandemic — meaning less per-pupil state aid — though it expects at least 300 of those students to return in the fall.

The district also is planning work on the ventilation systems at schools to improve air quality, and plans to provide more mental health support in fiscal 2022, which starts July 1 and ends June 30, 2022.

The initiatives to help deal with the physical and personal affects of the pandemic in schools are included in the district's proposed fiscal 2022 budget.

The nearly $328 million overall spending plan represents about a 1 percent increase. Chief Financial Officer David Nicholson told the school board this week.

The proposed budget includes $5 million of the $14.4 million in federal funds awarded the district in January by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — aid passed by Congress in its previous COVID-19 relief package.

Land owners in the district will pay a school tax rate of $15.36 per $1,000 of taxable property value — a rate unchanged from this year.

"We didn't want to increase taxes if we didn't have to, especially during this difficult time," Nicholson said, pointing to both the pandemic and the Aug. 10 derecho.

Even though the district's rate stays the same, however, that does not mean tax bills will stay the same also.

Under the state's rollback formula, a slightly higher share of a home's assessed value will be subject to taxes — 56.04 percent instead of the previous 55.07 percent.

The portion of a property tax bill for the school district on a $150,000 home will increase a little over $30, Nicholson said.

A virtual public hearing on the proposed budget is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. April 12.

Federal COVID-19 relief the district received will go toward educational services for learning loss this and next summer, HVAC air quality improvements in schools, mental health support and toward paying for technology, instructional materials and school bus attendants.

Nicholson said the district is working through what the educational supports for learning loss might look like — from extending summer school to creating more after-school programs.

"Everything is on the table right now," Nicholson said. "We may not necessarily be bringing in our own teachers for that. They might be burned out."

The district could amend the budget next year to provide more money for educational support if needed.

The district's student enrollment — more than 16,000 — decreased by 614 this year, which impacts the fiscal 2022 budget. For state aid, student count runs a year behind. The district's student count in October 2020 will be used for the fiscal 2022 budget.

Nicholson said the decrease in students has impacted the budget this year particularly for the special education program, "one of the driving forces to our deficit."

In fiscal 2020, the special education deficit was a little over $12 million compared with the deficit in 2019 of $9.2 million.

"The Cedar Rapids district has the highest deficit in the state," Nicholson said. "We're doing things we can to try to bring that deficit down, and we're trying to make sure we 100 percent meet the needs of our kids."

The needs of special education already were outpacing the level of aid coming in, but the pandemic worsened it in districts across the state.

Like other districts, Cedar Rapids is looking at ways to address the growing gap. The district is not planning to rehire paraeducators who did not come back during the 2020-21 school year because of the pandemic.

Nicholson said the district is working on restructuring some special education services to account for the decrease in paraeducators as more students are expected to return in-person this fall.

The other big factor in the district's budget is the derecho, which severely damaged school buildings. The Aug. 10 storm caused about $51.5 million in damages to the district's facilities.

But that is mostly covered by insurance and the district will pay a deductible of under $10,000.

(c)2021 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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