The Waterloo School Board unanimously approved the school district’s 2020-21 budget at its meeting Monday night.
The budget shows the district having $31,670,873 in revenue and $32,376,203 in expenditures this year, but Superintendent Brian Charron said he is far from certain about this year’s estimates given the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
“I have very little confidence that it’s accurate,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we’re guessing at. We have one (non-certified) union contract still to be negotiated. We have no idea what our substitute teacher expense is going to be.”
Overall, the budget calls for spending $705,330 more than estimated revenues, with the educational, operations and maintenance and debt services funds being in the red by $1,417,740, $778,320 and $73,982, respectively.
The district has been deficit spending in recent years to ensure it can maintain the same quality of education, knowing it has a surplus in its funds.
That is once again the case this year, especially considering the pandemic-related difficulties.
“At this point, it’s do what we have to to educate kids,” Charron said. “That means covering the cost associated with it, and we’re doing that to the best of our ability.”
The district’s ability is substantial.
After recording a budget surplus for last school year, Charron reported the educational fund has its highest starting balance since 2006.
The district’s total fund balance is the highest it has been in 14 years with the exception of two years it sold bonds and one year it got money from building the high school, per Charron.
That good start helps quiet concerns Charron said he has about state aid, which is frozen at last year’s levels because of the pandemic.
But Charron noted Illinois has not made promised payments to schools in the past.
“I have no idea what the state’s going to do with the state aid we’re supposed to get this year,” Charron said.
The other main topic the board discussed was the move to a blended learning plan that involves some students physically attending school starting Thursday.
The board formally unanimously OK’d that plan.
Currently, principals reported varying numbers of students who opted to attend school in-person versus remotely.
At Zahnow Elementary, about 93 percent of students have signed up for in-person instruction while 7 percent have chosen to remain fully remote.
Those numbers were approximately 90 percent versus 10 percent at Rogers Elementary and Gardner Elementary, 87 percent versus 13 percent at Waterloo Junior High School and 78 versus 22 percent at Waterloo High School.
With the majority of students attending school in-person, Charron emphasized that parents should know their children will still be learning from home at times.
“Parents should expect some very unfortunate situations where kids are not allowed at school,” Charron explained. “There are going to be times when your child starts exhibiting symptoms at school that are allergy-related symptoms that are no concern to you and your house, but we’re going to have no choice but to treat them like a COVID case.”
That child would be quarantined for two weeks or until the parents obtain a negative diagnosis or coronavirus test.
Charron also encouraged parents to familiarize themselves with Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines for schools because the Waterloo School District will be strictly adhering to those.
The district’s attorney and insurance company OK’d a return to in-person instruction only if the district followed the guidelines, which the hybrid model and shorter days facilitate.
“This remains the most difficult thing for anybody from teachers to administration,” Charron said of the decision to resume in-person learning. “There has never been a more difficult time to operate a school, and I know there has never been a more difficult time being a parent (or) being a board member.”
Although the district developed its plan with consultation from the health department and using data from other school districts, Charron said there are still concerns about safety.
“This remains a concern for me, and I say this so you know we are going to take this seriously,” he pledged.
Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner, who attended the meeting, also clarified that an entire school or the whole district would need to be quarantined only if contact tracing could not determine how cases of COVID-19 were passed.
Wagner said that is unlikely to happen, and Charron said the district will do everything it can to prevent it.
“We feel like we’re going to be able to follow the guidelines and for the most part keep people safe,” Charron said. “I say ‘for the most part’ because there is no guarantee. There’s going to be spread. I do worry about that. I worry about vulnerable populations.”