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COVID-19 Aftermath: For school districts, the numbers don’t add up

The Francis Howell School District Board of Education unanimously voted on Thursday, Feb. 3 to reduce the district’s full-time staff by 47 teachers, the fine arts content lead, 4.5 administrators, and 80 support staff positions. Support staff positions include classroom aides, bus drivers and early childhood and Vacation Station (after-school) staff. 

Those numbers, provided to the board by Chief Human Resources Officer Lisa Simpkins, represent 20 fewer cuts to full-time, certified staff members for the 2021-2022 school year than previously recommended. However, Simpkins stressed that the earlier, larger staff cuts would still be recommended for the district’s 2022-2023 staffing plan. Simpkins said delaying the larger cuts could help the district better absorb the reductions through retirement and resignations.

Prior to the vote, the district’s Communications Director Jennifer Jolls said the district intended to “address as many cuts as possible through the regular attrition that occurs every year.” She acknowledged that COVID-19 played a role in creating a financial shortfall for the district but that its effect was not the only consideration. 

“COVID is not the primary factor for the proposed budget cuts, but it has had significant impact on our operations,” Jolls explained. “We have purchased additional instructional technology to support virtual learning; this includes devices for students as well as hot spots to support students who have limited internet access. We saw a large increase costs to third-party providers for virtual courses for students. We have also had facility expenses related to PPE, additional cleaning materials, and revised cleaning protocols. As we planned for the start of the 2020-21 school year, we provided additional professional development for our teachers to help them adapt to virtual teaching.

“There are additional costs this year associated with transportation, as we revised our routes to incorporate appropriate COVID protocols. The district has incurred additional expenses related to providing meals for students who opted for virtual learning. We also provided meals for students over the summer. And we’ve seen some decline in revenue as a result of COVID.”

Speakers at the Feb. 4 board meeting voiced concerns about cutting teachers, especially after the challenging year students and parents have experienced as a result of the pandemic. Also of concern was potential staffing shortages in the Vacation Station after-school care program. Simpkins assured that Vacation Station was fully staffed at present and additional personnel could be added as needed for the tuition-based program.

In June 2020, Gov. Mike Parson cut $123.3 million from the K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) funding formula. At a press conference on June 30, he blamed COVID-19. 

In October 2020, he used federal dollars from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to restore about $61 million in K-12 funding. But for districts around the state, the aid simply was not enough. 

The Fort Zumwalt School District announced on Jan. 26 that its Board of Education had approved a tax levy, Proposition Strong Schools, for the April 6 ballot. The proposition seeks to “increase the operating tax levy of the district by $0.39 per $100 of assessed valuation for the purposes of maintaining existing educational programs, rebuilding fund balances and paying general operating expenses of the district.” If approved, the adjusted operating levy of the district is estimated to be $4.5437 per $100 of assessed valuation, resulting in a cost of about $9 per month for the owner of a $150,000 home within the district.  

In the announcement of Proposition Strong Schools, the Fort Zumwalt School District noted a “nearly $11 million in revenue lost since the onset of the pandemic.”

“In the past two fiscal years, the governor has withheld $5 million in foundation formula money,” the statement read. “Classroom Trust Fund money is down $2 million as the result of lagging casino and lottery receipts. In addition, the district has spent almost $4 million to ensure effective safety protocols and instruction for in-person and online classrooms.”

According to the district, its reserve funds are below the recommended 12% to 15% of its operating budget (as outlined in district policy) and are continuing to drop. 

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