The speed of Henry County Schools (HCS) response in the early days of the pandemic is remarkable. When Georgia schools closed on Friday, March 13, 2020 – to abide by the Governor’s recommendation for a two-week closure to mitigate infection spread – HCS activated remote learning for its grade 3-12 students. With devices and school materials in hand, HCS students logged in to class on Monday, March 16, 2020. Curbside meal service was activated March 18, 2020 and instructional materials were made available to PreK – grade 2 learners during the curbside meal pick-up windows. There was clear evidence that the system was committed to continuity of instruction, learning, and operations.
As it became clear that school buildings would remain closed for longer than 2 weeks, the HCS governance team sprang into action to ensure continuity of learning and services for HCS students. On April 2, 2020, the Henry County Board of Education adopted a resolution to approve the contingency operations for Henry County Schools in response to the State of Emergency declared by Governor Kemp and the Shelter-In-Place ordinance approved by the Henry County Board of Commissioners. District finances were included in the resolution, establishing an essential spending period for school and district purchasing for necessary expenditures to maintain and improve remote learning, necessary expenditures for the purchase of food for student meal preparation, necessary expenditures to maintain current operations at the local school and district levels, and emergency expenditures authorized by the superintendent (3). The quick action of the Henry County Board of Education on the Emergency Resolution enabled savings of $2.5 million compared to budgeted expenditures for the FY20 period; a critical action given the fiscal uncertainties for forthcoming FY21 budget cycle.
Henry County Schools faced significant revenue declines as the FY21 year approached. Just one-year prior for FY20 (July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020), the Henry County Board of Education had adopted the largest budget in the history of Henry County Schools with general fund revenues of $407.2 million, expenditures of $404.6 million, and investments in savings of $2.5 million(4). During the FY20 budget period, the Board invested $22 million in competitive salaries for the employees of Henry County Schools to support attracting and retaining effective talent.
As the events of March and April 2020 unfolded, Henry County Schools braced for declines in funding for the upcoming FY21 school year. Ultimately, Henry County Schools saw a $41.5 million decrease in state revenues for Quality Basic Education (QBE) when the legislators initially passed the State’s FY21 budget in June 2020 due to the following drivers (5):
- a $22.8 million reduction due to austerity,
- a $12.3 million reduction in the equalization grant compared to prior years,
- a $6.0 million reduction due to growth in HCS’ local fair share contribution, and
- a $0.4 million reduction due to enrollment and retirement rate adjustments.
While there was growth in the local county digest year over year forecasted for the FY21 budget year, the $8.8 million in local revenue growth did not offset the significant loss of state revenue experienced. Further, there was heightened risk related to the collection of local property taxes.
Despite the economic challenges presented during the FY21 budget cycle, the Henry County Board of Education and Superintendent committed to:
• Be a stable employer. Henry County Schools is the largest employer in Henry County and it was paramount to mitigate economic shocks to the local economy. Accordingly, the FY21 budget adopted by the Board of Education did not include any furlough days (i.e., days worked without pay). Additionally, the salary schedule was honored and any employee due a pay increase based on years of service received their earned step.
• Provide high-quality, flexible instruction and learning environments. Henry County Schools provided families with the opportunity to choose on-campus or remote learning. All students PreK – 12 were enabled with digital devices. Modifications to learning progressions and the physical learning environment (e.g., buildings) were completed.
• Ensure access to services. Henry County Schools prioritized student access to physical, mental, and social services to ensure students and families had the supports necessary to traverse the pandemic. Henry County Schools continued to offer curbside meal service for students within Henry County, despite knowledge this would incur a deficit in school nutrition operations. Similarly, the Afterschool Enrichment Program was made available for families as needed.
To accomplish the above objectives and balance the significant declines in revenue, the Henry County Board of Education’s FY21 Budget required use of $24.9 million of savings, reserves, and federal funding. A video summary of FY21 budget highlights is available here.