School Closures Saved Wisconsin Schools Money. But Where Did it Go?

Will Flanders and Jessica Holmberg:

On Dec. 30, amidst the holiday hubbub, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released the results of a statewide survey of school districts regarding their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey, mandated by the legislature last April, is a window into how all 421 districts in the state responded to the pandemic, including decisions to shut down and the biggest challengers they faced.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the survey is the portion which deals with additional costs and savings to school districts during the pandemic. In light of efforts by DPI to increase funding by an additional $1.6 billion for the 2021–23 budget, it is particularly important to see what sort of stewards of taxpayer money districts have been this year.

The report asks for cost and savings in five categories: utilities, transportation, food service, personnel, contract terminations, and a catch-all “other” bucket. The Figure below reports the net savings and costs across the state in each of the main buckets. By far the biggest savings came from transportation costs. When schools are shut down, obviously most kids are no longer being transported leading to a savings statewide of more than $34 million.

Other substantial savings came from Personnel costs. The $10.6 million in savings here one presumes may come partially from a lack of a need for substitutes, who are generally paid on an “as needed” basis. The only main bucket for which we see a cost increase is for food services, which increased by approximately $6.3 million. This likely results from the logistical challenges of continuing to provide free and reduced meals during the pandemic. These buckets result in a net savings of $40 million.

Despite the aggregate savings statewide, costs and savings varied substantially by district. The table below shows the top five saving and spending districts. Districts with the largest savings appear to have gotten the bulk of it through reduced transportation costs. As a district that shut down, for instance, Milwaukee saved more than $5 million in this category. At the other end of the spectrum are districts that spent more on food services. Racine lists an increase there of $1.9 million. Curiously, some of the largest spending districts, including Racine, report no savings on their transportation budgets despite being shut down. Given that other districts were able to get out of at least a portion of their transportation spending, this suggests either that bad contracts were made by the district, or that they are not fully reporting the money they saved.

DPI Survey .xlsx file.

A few Madison responses:

  • # of Breakfasts provided March 12, 2020 to June 30, 2020: 228,327; 228,848 lunches
  • Utility spending -$389,000
  • Transportation spending -$2,000,000
  • Food service spending +$1,264,705
  • Personnel spending +$2,300,000
  • +$974,000 – excess emergency resources including Wi-Fi hotspots, virtual curriculum and platforms, safety equipment, health supplies, and IT infrastructure.
  • 2020-2021 planned food service spending increase: $4,000,000
  • $3,200,000 declining enrollment exemption. $275,000 in categorical per pupil aid. $500,000 loss in student fees collected. $2,300,000-$4,900,000 local funds for additional expenditures related to safety, virtual curricular materials, health supplies, PPE, building modifications, technology needs. Plan to use CARES Act – ESSER/GEER to cover $1,500,000 of food service and $7,000,000 for safety, virtual curricular materials, health supplies, PPE, building modifications and technology needs in addition to the local funds.