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The Blaine County School District began teacher contract negotiations this week as questions loom about how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect state and local funding next year.

The first of three scheduled virtual online meetings to discuss the master agreement took place on Wednesday night. The second and third were scheduled for Thursday of this week and next Thursday, May 14.

Complicating negotiations this year is the outbreak of coronavirus in Idaho and the subsequent economic shutdown, which will likely mean cuts to state funding and decreased revenue coming in through local property taxes.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about what next year’s budget looks like,” district Finance Manager Bryan Fletcher said in Wednesday’s meeting. “Our best guess right now is frankly anybody’s guess.”

The district had already anticipated a decrease in state funding for the 2020-2021 school year before the pandemic, as enrollment was expected to go down by about 50 students—an expected loss of about $425,000 for the district. Both the district’s current plant facilities levy and the supplemental levy voters carved out of it in 2018 end in July, too. That’s $2.99 million the district won’t get next year, Fletcher said.

Now, COVID-19 and its economic side effects could throw additional wrenches into the BCSD budget.

“In a year when we’ve had to ask for unprecedented effort from our staff, we’re also facing unprecedented funding shortages,” Trustee Lara Stone said. “I want to be clear that we’re here to find a fair and equitable solution even given the situation that we’re in.”

Gov. Brad Little ordered a 1 percent holdback in state funding for schools for the 2019-2020 school year in response to the economic costs of coronavirus, though that loss was largely offset in Blaine County by the roughly $240,000 the district received in stimulus money through the CARES Act. The governor hasn’t officially ordered a holdback for the 2020-2021 school year, but school district leaders on Wednesday night speculated that next year’s cut—if there is one—could be for as much as 5 percent of state funding.

At the same time, a spike in unemployment locally could mean a larger number of people struggling to pay their mortgage—and, as a result, a smaller amount of funding going to the school district by way of local property taxes, which account for about 60 percent of the district’s revenue. More than 2,000 people in Blaine County have filed for unemployment insurance benefits since March 15.

“If they have to make a choice between paying for their car, paying for food, and their mortgage payment, they may opt not to make the mortgage payment,” Fletcher said.

BCSD also bracing itself for a possible greater drop in enrollment next year than was initially expected: When the 2008 recession hit, BCSD enrollment declined by about 100 students.

The district expects to be able to cover some of next year’s costs on its own. The BCSD has put aside a portion of supplemental levy funds over the past two years and anticipates that the reserves will cover the cost of technology contracts and maintenance expenses for 2020-2021, according to a presentation in Wednesday’s meeting. State law requires school districts to set aside 2 percent of the replacement value of its buildings for annual maintenance, between $1.2 million and $1.3 million each year in the Blaine County School District, Fletcher told the Express in December. And, the district has between $900,000 and $1 million in annual technology contracts, he said.

As of Wednesday, BCSD leadership expected to bring in just over $50 million in revenue next year, with estimated expenses of about $53.3 million. There’s plenty that may change between now and then, however.

“I don’t think we can take this to the bank,” Fletcher said. “But I think we can today build a budget from what we know.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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