Staff from Central Elementary School in La Grande line the campus Friday, April 18, 2020, during a drive-by-and-wave parade. The La Grande School District’s budget committee voted Wednesday, June 2, 2021, to recommend that a total budget of $44.345 million, $3.180 million more than its current year’s budget, be adopted by the school board.

LA GRANDE — The La Grande School District’s budget picture looks solid despite having 140 fewer students since 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The La Grande School District’s budget committee voted Wednesday, June 2, to recommend that a total budget of $44.345 million, $3.180 million more than its current year’s budget, be adopted by the school board.

The recommended budget would call for no program reductions or layoffs and a net increase of .55 of one full-time employee position.

The district’s budget is solid because of $7.01 million in federal funding it has available to it to offset the impact of the pandemic. This is funding the La Grande School District has qualified for and will be reimbursed for once it is spent, according to La Grande School District Budget Director Chris Panike.

A significant portion of this COVID-19 relief funding would be put in the school district’s reserve fund, helping offset the money the school district lost due to declining enrollment.

The school district receives about $8,600 from the state for each student. The loss of 140 students since the pandemic hit has cost the school district about $1.2 million in state funding.

Typically, a loss in funding would mean the school district would be forced to make cuts in staff and programs to balance its budget. That is not the case now because the school district’s reserve fund is strong in part because of the COVID-19 relief money.

Panike said that if about 80 of the 140 students return next year, the school district will be able to operate about two years before its reserves are drawn to the point that reductions in staff and programs would be needed.

A number of the students who left the district are being homeschooled or are now attending online learning academies. George Mendoza, La Grande School District superintendent, said it will not be known for some time how many will return to the La Grande School District.

“Time is needed to determine what the long-term impact on student enrollment will be due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in his budget message.

Panike said on Friday June 4, that if the $9.3 billion 2021-23 education budget the state Legislature’s House passed June 3, after being approved by the Senate, is signed by Gov. Kate Brown, the La Grande School District will have to draw significantly from its reserves. He explained the proposed Oregon school budget would leave the La Grande School District $1.35 million short of what it expects it will need to cover rising employee costs and failing enrollment.

The school district is financially prepared for this, Panike said, because the district’s 2021-22 budget was built on the assumption that the Legislature would pass a $9.3 billion education budget for the 2021-23 biennium.

A large portion of the COVID-19 relief funding the school district will receive comes from the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary School School Emergency Relief Fund. These ESSER funds must be spent within three years and some must be used for specific purposes, Mendoza said.

The La Grande School District’s budget calls for about six full-time positions to be added and for 5.5 other nonclassroom teaching positions to be trimmed in part by not hiring people to fill some open positions. No employees would be laid off.

The positions to be added would include that of a student success coordinator, a woods and construction teacher, an English language learner position, an English language learner paraeducator, plus a behavior teacher who assists students with behavior issues and a behavior paraeducator.

The La Grande School Board will conduct a hearing on the proposed budget at the beginning of its June 21 meeting. The public will be able to comment on the budget or ask questions of the board and school staff at the hearing, which will start at 7 p.m. at Central Elementary School.

The school board will vote on adoption of the budget following the hearing.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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