SDL - McCaskey

A view of McCaskey High School, in the School District of Lancaster.

When: School District of Lancaster board meeting, April 20.

What happened: School board members discovered that enrollment has dropped to a dangerously low level and discussed ways to spend about $66 million remaining federal COVID-19 relief money.

Quotable: “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Matt Przywara, the district’s chief financial officer, said of the enrollment dip. The district counted 10,170 students on April 13, well below its projected enrollment of about 10,800. Przywara counted 10,441 pupils Oct. 1, 2020. “Our students are just not here.”

Background: As with many school districts, enrollment has been dropping slowly. Przywara said the district “has always been on a downward trend,” but the pandemic added an extra push.

The future: Przywara said they think enrollment is going to come back after COVID-19, but they don’t know how much. He noted that some parents may have delayed their child’s kindergarten start last fall and will wait until August. Also, an increase in charter school attendance has shifted students away from the district.

Budget plan: Smaller class sizes, new cyber programs and increased mental health counseling may bring students back as board members wrestle with how to spend one-time funding after the pandemic. The district has restrictions on how to allocate the money and must do so by 2024. For instance, the district must devote a certain amount to recoup learning loss from COVID-19.

Quotable: “We can’t do everything right away,” Przywara warned the board, “but this is a chance to leverage funds.”

Preliminary plan: Przywara outlined a $245 million preliminary 2021-22 budget that includes enhanced cleaning, improved ventilation, technology and more academic support to catch students up to what they missed when schools shut down.

Board response: Some board members asked the district to outline a budget philosophy that focuses on a year of recovery for students and staff.

Quotable: “People are exhausted. The budget needs something to address the year that people just had,” David Parry said. “We can’t just put the pedal to the metal and press harder, and assume that will correct the problem” of missed learning.

Discussion: The budget needs an overarching theme, Luis Morales agreed. Kareena Rios asked administrators to ease up on summer school requirements to allow activities that build the district community. She also suggested creating pandemic support groups in schools. Lois Strause encouraged board members to wait for more specific budget information coming in May. “There may be more of that philosophy than what we’re giving credit for,” she said.

Next: The next school board meeting will be at 7 p.m. May 4. The public can view meetings and register to comment on the district website.

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