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COVID not hurting Anniston school budgets, but leaders worry about kids

The coronavirus pandemic has actually helped Anniston City Schools in its struggle to make ends meet, school officials said Thursday, though school board members say they’re deeply worried about the long-term effects on their students.

“The two things that keep me awake at night: the academics and the social-emotional part,” said school board member Joan Frazier.

School officials from around the state have reported declining academic scores and a rise in mental health problems as the pandemic wears on.

Frazier and two other members of the five-member school board convened Thursday at Anniston Middle School for a work session and the board’s regular meeting. The halls of Anniston Middle were quiet, even though it’s semester test week for most local schools. The school system moved to all-online sessions last week due to the spread of the virus.

One in roughly every 13 people in the county has been infected at this point, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health. An estimated 136 in the county are dead from the virus.

Even so, Anniston schools have avoided another potential pandemic-related disaster. Instead of losing revenue to the virus and the associated economic slump, the school system ended the 2020 fiscal year with $3.4 million on hand.

“The books show that number,” chief school financial officer Johanna Martin told the school board. “But we know what lies in the background.”

The school system operated in the red for years before Martin was hired as financial officer in January. Anniston schools ended 2016 and 2017 with a deficit, and didn’t have the state-required amount of reserve funds on hand at the end of last year.

Belated audits, released in May, found that the school system had unspent federal funds and misreported payroll figures on its books in 2018. Martin and other school officials say they’re still awaiting likely fines from the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service because of that past misreporting.

COVID-19, however, helped balance this year’s books, according to Martin. The school system received more than $3 million in federal aid under the coronavirus-inspired CARES act, Martin said, some of which covered spending that otherwise would have come out of the school system’s general fund.

The school system laid off teachers early in the pandemic, Martin noted. Overtime and professional development costs went down. Buses didn’t run while in-person school was closed, and Martin said the state allowed the school system to move transportation money to other uses. Despite efforts to get food to kids when schools were closed, overall costs for cafeteria food were down.

Technically, the $3.4 million end-of-year figure has the school system where it should be, with more than two months of reserve funds on hand. But Martin said much of that money is earmarked for specific purposes, and much of it could go away when the expected Social Security fines come in.

“We are still living hand-to-mouth, as they say,” Martin said.

School board members say they will likely need still more money to address the long-term problems caused by having kids learning at home, in relative social isolation, for so long.

“We just don’t know the long-term impacts of the pandemic on society,” said board president Robert Houston. He said kids’ eating and sleeping habits have changed.

“My daughter is a clinical psychologist, and that business is off the chain right now,” Houston said.

The school system announced this week that students won’t be returning for in-person classes after the Christmas break. Virtual classes will resume Jan. 5, and teachers will be back in classrooms, teaching online, on Jan. 11.

Superintendent Ray Hill said Thursday that there is no clear date for when students will return to the classroom. It depends on the spread of the virus, he said.

Board members met behind closed doors in executive session to discuss potential discipline of a school board staff member. The board also voted 3-0 in favor of additional funding to keep lunchroom staff and others who will work during the break as schools distribute meals to kids on free and reduced lunch over the holidays.

Hill said the cost of the extended lunchroom pay was about $2,500.