Northfield Public Schools won’t receive approximately $440,000 in previously anticipated revenue this school year after nearly 70 students opted not to enroll due in part to concerns about COVID-19.

Superintendent Matt Hillmann noted of the 67 students who chose not to attend school during the 2020-21 school year, slightly more than half (34) were entering kindergarten and decided to wait until the pandemic slows.

Northfield Public Schools Director of Finance Val Mertesdorf noted the impact of the decrease is especially apparent because approximately 55% of the district’s total general fund revenue is based on per-pupil state funding, and 70% of the budget is enrollment-based.

“It was definitely a big deal for the district,” she said.

Mertesdorf said the decrease in anticipated revenue is difficult to make up, and leaves the district to either absorb the loss or make a budget adjustment. The latter option is considered more difficult because of the number of staffing contracts the district has. The state has a declining enrollment funding source dedicated to helping districts experiencing declining enrollment.

Northfield Public Schools and other districts are looking for the state to “hold them harmless” and list overall revenue as of Oct. 1, 2019, to accommodate pandemic-induced financial challenges. The federal government has allowed all students to receive free/reduced-price lunches during the pandemic, a decision that Mertesdorf said could cost Northfield Public Schools approximately $500,000. Mertesdorf wants all families who qualify for free/reduced-price lunches to still submit an application to ensure the district receives the revenue.

Mertesdorf is revising the district’s financial forecast and projection. The revised budget is expected to be presented to the School Board during a December meeting. Administrators will also get a better idea of where students are attending school this year from an enrollment options report presented during a late November School Board meeting.

Delays could lead to larger future class

Hillmann acknowledged that the influx of students who opted not to attend school this year will change the dynamic of planning class sizes for 2021-22 and could result in larger classes over the long term. Still, he expressed confidence that the district will be able to work through any increase, adding that he understands the health considerations parents weighed when opting not to enroll their children this year. Hillmann said during a School Board meeting last month that construction projects at Sibley and Greenvale Park elementary schools will open up more space to accommodate any larger future classes.

Still, the substantial increase in COVID-19 cases as winter draws near is leaving questions as to whether Northfield Public Schools will be able to continue operating with exclusively in-person elementary school instruction and hybrid learning for older students. Hillmann noted the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education have learned that county case rates are only one factor in deciding the learning format a district should undertake. Other factors include where those positive tests are taking place, whether school districts are seeing much transmission within buildings and the number of students who are out of school due to influenza-like symptoms.

Hillmann emphasized the safety protocols the district is undertaking for students learning within district buildings. School staff is creating as much physical spacing as possible, and frequent hand washing and/or hand sanitation is encouraged. If COVID-19 symptoms are reported during a school day, an isolation process is implemented.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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