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Update: The funding was approved by the Missouri House but still needs to clear the Missouri Senate.
Kansas City Public Schools — and all other districts in the state — are anxiously waiting for Missouri legislators to release $1.95 billion in pandemic relief funding.
KCPS would receive more than $64 million. Charter schools within the district would get nearly $53 million combined.
Officials already know how to spend the money, and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reviewed their plans.
But if the legislature doesn’t appropriate the majority of the money by March 24 — a routine step in most states — the funding will be lost.
KCPS leadership is hoping lawmakers will release the funding, but the district is working to make sure the state knows just how important the federal spending could be to students.
“This is a one-time opportunity for us as a Kansas City community … to use these dollars to improve the conditions within which our students learn,” said Jennifer Wolfsie, vice chair of the KCPS school board. “Those are the classrooms and the supports that our students need academically and socially, emotionally, but then also the physical buildings.”
The funding is part of the American Rescue Plan passed in March. U.S. lawmakers approved about $1.95 billion for Missouri schools and the U.S. Department of Education released all of Missouri’s funds in October, after it approved DESE’s plan.
It’s the latest of three rounds of funding from federal stimulus packages.
In the Hickman Mills C-1 School District, also based in Kansas City, Superintendent Yaw Obeng said the consequences could be serious and long-lasting if schools don’t receive the funding to help students who fell behind because of the pandemic. His district would receive about $27 million.
“It’s going to be a real loss for society, because this is a whole cohort of children that are going to have gaps in their learning and supports … They’re not going to be able to go back and pick up some of the skills and things that they didn’t acquire because we weren’t able to provide them,” he said.
“Maybe 10 years from now or something we’ll see that generation looking a little different.”
What KC schools’ plans were for COVID funding
Federal relief funds for schools are meant to address the pandemic’s impact, including helping students catch up academically, modifying buildings to improve air quality, acquiring technology and preventing COVID spread with personal protective equipment.
Schools would like to use this most recent round of funding to continue their work and, in some cases, add projects.
On the academic side, KCPS has used funds to increase staffing, such as hiring full-time substitute teachers assigned to specific schools or adding staff like paraprofessionals, interventionists and tutors who provide extra one-on-one support to students who are struggling.
The district has also hired additional teachers to reduce class sizes as students try to catch up from pandemic learning loss, and it has added a virtual academy.
Hickman Mills also used funds to incentivize teachers to join the district, as well as combating what Obeng calls the “COVID slide” with efforts to improve student achievement such as tutoring and evening classes.
“There’s learning loss that has happened during this period,” he said. “Whether you’ve been out of school or in school, it hasn’t been the same because we’ve just been triaging every day.”
Last year, the district provided extended summer school with both in-person and virtual options, Obeng said. He’d like to do something similar this summer.
“We have to plan now, but if these funds are going to be withheld or not given, it’s hard to make those full commitments,” he said.
Schools also hope to use funds to update their buildings.
Linda Quinley, chief operations and financial officer for KCPS, said the district prioritized urgent needs such as academics and safety during earlier rounds of funding, knowing it might be able to devote more of a later round to building improvements.
While she doesn’t think KCPS would have done anything differently had it known the third round of funding was at risk, losing out on a chance to address the district’s nearly $400 million of deferred maintenance would be a major blow. The district plans to devote $35 million to building needs, focusing on HVAC systems and improving air quality.
“We want to use this as one of the ways we start chipping away at that,” she said, explaining that schools typically fund major building repairs, improvements and maintenance through general obligation bonds, a form of voter-approved debt that is often paid off through taxes.
KCPS hasn’t gotten voter approval for a general obligation bond since 1967, Quinley said, and that has led to the backlog of maintenance. The district would like to reduce the amount of money it eventually will need to ask voters to approve.
Hickman Mills has also been using relief funds on building projects like improving air quality and removing unsanitary water fountains.
Obeng said the more federal funding the district can devote to one-time expenses and short-term pandemic needs, the more state and local funding it can reserve for future emergencies.
“It’s all a big puzzle, and you know (if) one piece of the puzzle is missing, your plans have to shift, and that’s a challenge for us,” he said. “We’re getting to the stage where we have to start rewriting plans and cutting things and trying to prioritize what will work, what will not work.”
What’s delaying schools’ COVID funding in the legislature?
Obeng said he doesn’t understand why Missouri legislators would hesitate to send money to schools when districts in other states haven’t faced the same from their legislatures.
“I’m not quite sure what the rationale is; the dollars are there,” he said.
But the process is becoming more complicated.
In late January, Quinley said legislators didn’t need to make decisions about the details of how to spend the money because the parameters had already been set by both the federal government and DESE’s approved plan.
A percentage of the funds would go to the state’s education department while the vast majority would be distributed to local school districts according to a predetermined federal formula. Districts then submitted their own plans to DESE.
“The feds have made the decisions and written the rules,” Quinley said. “And so what the state legislators need to do is decide if they’re going to accept the dollars and accept the rules.”
But in a new version of the supplemental budget bill that budget committee members reviewed Friday morning, Feb. 4, the legislature placed conditions on districts receiving their full allotment and specified how large segments of DESE’s portion should be spent, such as on summer school programs and teacher retention grants. The House Budget Committee is scheduled to discuss the spending bill during a meeting at 11 a.m. Monday, Feb. 7 and could vote on it the same day.
Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Democrat from Kansas City, said she was especially concerned that the legislation includes a program that would hire a third-party vendor to distribute $1,500 grants to families for education-related services, such as tutoring and summer camps.
“I see a lot of opportunities there for for-profit ventures to get involved and have state tax dollars be diverted to private companies, and I find that really troubling,” she said.
Nurrenbern also said there will be “vigorous” debate about whether the legislature is allowed to specify how the funds should be spent or whether it’s putting the funding at risk, with some Democrats taking the latter position.
A former teacher and current parent of students in North Kansas City Public Schools, Nurrenbern said she is frustrated that the delay is making it difficult for the district to plan and for her to know what to expect for her children, such as whether summer school will be available. North Kansas City is also the only school district in her legislative district.
“I’m quite frankly flabbergasted that we still are here now in February, and we have not allocated the dollars,” Nurrenbern said.
She said reluctance to approve the federal funding seems to stem from resistance to high federal spending and frustration with DESE and local districts.
Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Democrat from Kansas City who serves on the Budget Committee, said it’s understandable that schools are concerned because “there is a lot of money at stake here.”
Burnett’s district covers parts of Kansas City Public Schools and the Independence School District, two of the area districts that stand to gain or lose the most.
“The only objection that I continue to hear is that this is deficit spending and we’re adding to the federal deficit and we shouldn’t be doing that,” she said.
Burnett, Nurrenbern and Quinley all emphasized that if Missouri fails to accept the money, it will be distributed to other states rather than used to reduce the national debt.
Burnett also worries about how the bill will fare in the contentious Missouri Senate.
“We absolutely have to get this passed and on to the Senate, where, who knows? They are so tied up in their ideological arguing that I hope they’re willing to stop what they’re doing for a moment and take a look at this,” she said.
Quinley said she hopes most of the funding will be approved by the March 24 deadline, which requires that at least two-thirds of the money be appropriated.
“We believe that in the end, great minds will prevail, and we’ll accept this allocation because it doesn’t do the state any good to reject it.”
Getting the public involved with the school funding conversation
Wolfsie, who also chairs the KCPS school board’s Government Relations Committee, said KCPS has been trying to involve parents, students and community members in reaching out to legislators to explain the importance of the funding.
She recently traveled to Jefferson City with a group of parents and students to speak with lawmakers about the funding, including informal conversations with local legislators and meetings with members of the House and Senate education committees.
Wolfsie said most conversations were “wonderful.”
“A lot of folks actually are supportive of what goes on, and there’s a lot of similarities amongst the different environments in which K-12 takes place, between urban and rural,” she said.
Wolfsie said she encourages members of the public to reach out to their lawmakers, whether in person or by phone, social media, email or an after-hours voicemail.
It’s about registering their opinion, she said.
“What typically happens is they do keep track of how many of those sort of messages they receive, either for or against,” she said. “It’s not necessarily that you need to call and convince them to do something, it’s that you just need to make sure that they hear your voice.”
Obeng said he’s not sure whether the community understands the issue, but he would like to start getting more people involved.
He wants to avoid what would happen if the legislature doesn’t meet the deadline.
“Wow, that would be a significant blow to public education in Missouri, not just for us, for across the state,” he said. “For us, it’ll mean putting back some of the plans that we have to keep enrichment for our students and then close the learning gap.”