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LHS graduation pushed back again, now July 23

Uncertainty about next year's budget is just one of many complex problems facing Lowell Area Schools as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

Lowell High School's 2020 graduation ceremony will now take place on Thursday, July 23 instead of Thursday, June 11.

“We did a survey and asked parents if they wanted to have a virtual ceremony instead,” said Lowell Area Schools superintendent Greg Pratt. “It wasn't unanimous, but a significant number wanted to hold a traditional graduation ceremony. And, to be very honest, I prefer that myself. I think it's something that families look forward to. Moms, dads and grandparents want to get together and celebrate their students' success, and we will try to do that in July.”

After last week's Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference in Lansing, (a budget meeting between the state treasurer, budget director and some legislative financial analysts), the officials involved announced that state tax revenue is down by about $3.2 billion this fiscal year as a direct result of the pandemic, and the budget will probably suffer another $3 billion hit next year for the same reason.

To help ease the burden a little, Michigan school districts will receive $350 million in federal CARES Act funds, plus $40 million more to be distributed as grants. Lowell Area Schools will receive $210,815 of this money. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has stated that K-12 funding is one of her top priorities, called on the federal government for more financial help last week.

“Michigan and states all over our country need our federal government to step up and to help our efforts,” Whitmer said in a news conference on Thursday, May 28. “We need flexibility and financial support from the federal government to support essential services like health care, education, public safety and transportation during this crisis. [...] The ball is in the court of the United States Senate. Until they act, it's still going to be dicey.”

Whitmer's legislative opponents did not accept this line of reasoning, however.

“Waiting on a 'Hail Mary' from Congress is not a plan,” said Sen. Tony Stamas, (R-Midland), in a press release. “We now know the full scope of the budget problem and we need the governor to start working with the legislature to solve it.”

There is also the possibility that, to keep the state solvent, local school districts could be forced to pay back already-distributed funds, a prospect that superintendent Pratt described as “very concerning.” Estimates range from $650 to $700 per student going back to the state, and if not this school year, maybe next year. The district currently gets $8,111 per pupil, and at the beginning of the school year they had a $6,023,913 balance in the general fund.

“We're fortunate because we have a strong fund balance,” Pratt said. “Any proration the state asked for this year would come out of that fund balance. The concern is more for next year, when they're talking about a proration as high as $700 per student, and by some estimates maybe even higher. And if there's a proration this year, another proration next year would be devastating.”

Regardless of social upheaval, the district is still working on completing their budget for the 2020-2021 school year. Their goal is to finish this sometime in June.

“There are a lot of unknowns moving into the summer,” Pratt said. “We'll start putting an estimated budget together, but the reality is we'll have to adjust it accordingly as the state gives us more information.”

Construction projects were on hold due to the pandemic and are now behind schedule, but the money for that comes from a bond so those projects will not be impacted by any budget deficit. Pratt said that he and the school board are devising ways to save money, potentially including an increase in online learning, not going out of their way to replace future retirees, not buying any more new buses or reducing the sizes of some of their educational programs. Pratt said the board is hoping for the public's input as these plans are developed.

“A lot of those decisions have yet to be made because we don't have enough details,” Pratt said. “We sent out a parent survey to collect information about what parents' thoughts were on the roll-out of our online piece during the stay-at-home order. We asked them their concerns for the fall and their preferences to gather their feedback as we do that planning. Parents are under a lot of stress right now. They're working from home a lot, the economy is struggling and they're helping their children with online learning, so we wanted to start with the parents, but we are at a very early stage in that process.”

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