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Fort Zumwalt requests federal stimulus, delays start of 2020-21 school year

During a regular monthly meeting on July 20, the Fort Zumwalt School District Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution requesting federal stimulus funds on behalf of America’s schools.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who chairs the subcommittee on the departments of labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies for the Senate Appropriations Committee received a copy of the resolution.

The resolution states in part: “our nation’s future well-being relies on investing in the cornerstone of our democracy – high-quality public education systems that prepare all students for college, careers, democracy and lifelong learning, even in the midst of the national and state emergencies. … our nation’s school systems, colleges and universities must be adequately funded and supported in order to prevent prolonged learning disruptions, which threaten the future of our communities and our economy.”

In an accompanying letter, Fort Zumwalt Superintendent Dr. Bernard DuBray wrote:

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri’s budget has taken a nearly $1 billion loss in revenue, much of which has been passed along to public school districts by Gov. Mike Parson, who has the constitutional responsibility of balancing the budget. In Fort Zumwalt’s case, nearly 15%, or $8 million, in state funding has been lost in foundation formula payments and gambling and lottery revenue.”

The last time the federal government provided stimulus packages to help school districts through similar economic situations was during the Great Recession of 2008. State spending on education was slow to recover and federal spending on education only returned to pre-recession levels during the 2015-16 school year.

During a phone interview, DuBray gave his thoughts on how the current recession from COVID-19 will likely have an even greater and lasting impact on education.

“It certainly could make a worse impact,” he said. “During the Great Recession between 2009-2012, Fort Zumwalt received $18.5 million in stimulus money. The state was able to plug holes in their budget and that really kept us going. There is so much politics being played right now, so I honestly don’t know if the stimulus will happen or not. Our budget is devastated. I think it could get worse and right now, the only way out is a stimulus package and more revenue coming to the school.”

The Missouri Foundation Formula is a step-by-step plan for figuring out how much Missouri should spend each year on K-12 education and it was approved over a decade ago. The formula was created to ensure that every district has enough funding to provide an adequate education for students no matter where they live. Foundation formula payments are based on four key factors: weighted average daily attendance, the state adequacy target, a dollar value modifier and local effort.

Based on the formula, $3.7 billion goes to Missouri schools and Fort Zumwalt is a big recipient of a portion of that payment. But this year the formula payment will be sparse.

“Local legislators are generally supportive of their schools,” DuBray explained. “We just need to communicate with them. The legislators have fully funded the formula. They appropriated enough money to get the payout for the formula. (However,) the revenue of the state came in way lower than what they expected.

Gov. Parsons made cuts (about $130 million) in June which is the last month of the fiscal year and in July he cut another $140 million, so for our district that was about $6 million.”

In addition to the loss of foundation formula funding, the district also will see gambling and lottery losses.

“We usually get $7 million from the gambling receipts, but we will be closer to $5 million this year because the casinos were shut down,” DuBray said. “Since opening they are at restricted capacity, so we will continue to get less revenue.

“Sales tax is also a concern. Prop C is a sales tax for education and with people not shopping as much right now, that’s also a big concern. It’s a perfect storm of a lot of bad things for the schools.”

The district has about a 10% reserve in their operating fund, which is lower than they like to see. If it gets below 3%t, it becomes a stressed school district.

There were savings experienced by the school district during COVID-19. The biggest savings during the shutdown came from not needing to pay substitute teachers, buy gas for buses and the reduced used of electric and utilities.

In the past, the district has made adjustments within its budget to offset reduced revenue, but this time DuBray said the only way forward is a tax levy.

“We can make adjustments like implementing a hiring freeze, using savings, cutting costs where we can – but the bottom line is that we need a lot right now and we need to go back to tax payers and get more support for the schools,” DuBray said.

As districts in other states without mask mandates, like Missouri, struggle to reopen, DuBray said there are contingency plans in place should cases continue to rise and with those plans come added costs.

“We have to keep talking to our health department, making changes as needed,” he said. “We require masks in our school district, even though our county doesn’t. We will implement social distancing as much as possible and promote hand washing, sanitizing, etc.

“There are a lot of things we will be spending money on now that we normally wouldn’t have to, so that also exacerbates the problem.”

Back to school delayed

The Fort Zumwalt School District Board of Education unanimously approved a delay of the 2020-21 school year at an emergency meeting on Aug. 10. The new back-to-school date is now Aug. 31, the same day that Francis Howell students return to their schools.

With just a one week delay to the start of the school year, many parents voiced concerns on social media that the district won’t be ready to open safely. But DuBray is keeping a positive outlook.

“The five days will help us get ready,” he said. “Our biggest issue is the scheduling of the 3,500 virtual students, which changed the schedules of the in-person students, as well.

“It’s a laborious process that our counselors have to go through. It surprised us at how many chose the virtual option.”

According to a release from the district issued on Aug. 11, approximately 20% of students registered for FZ Virtual, the full-time virtual option in which families could enroll until July 31. That number was higher than had been indicated in early summer surveys.

“Now that we have a better idea on bus riders and who is going to actually be in school, we will open on (Aug.) 31 and have as good a year as we can,” DuBray said.

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