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Education

Jackson County Legislators Can't Decide If Urban Or Suburban Schools Should Get More Coronavirus Aid

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Kansas City Public Schools
Volunteers prepare backpacks full of school supplies for Kansas City Public Schools students. Superintendent Mark Bedell reiterated Monday that he wants to get students back in classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so.

Suburban school districts will get more money if Jackson County distributes CARES funds by enrollment. But high poverty districts say the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the low-income families they serve.

Jackson County has set aside $5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for schools, but legislators haven’t agreed on how to distribute it yet.

County Executive Frank White has proposed sending half of the money to districts based on enrollment. The other half would be distributed based on how many high poverty children each district serves, with districts getting more money if more students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

The Kansas City and Raytown school districts both spoke in support of White’s plan at Monday’s meeting.

“In our school district, we serve a 100% free and reduced lunch population of students, many of whom are in extreme poverty, and as a result, probably close to 70% of our families did not even have access to WiFi to be able to connect at home,” KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell told county lawmakers.

But legislative chair Theresa Galvin doesn’t think schools should get more CARES money just because they serve more economically disadvantaged students.

“I support this, I support giving the $5 million, I’m not saying that at all,” Galvin said. “I don’t support the allocation. I think it should be off of enrollment.”

Galvin’s approach is supported by wealthier districts, including Lee’s Summit. Lee’s Summit Superintendent David Buck told legislators he’ll be grateful for whatever money the district gets from the county, but everyone needs help paying for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and technology right now.

“The CARES funds that came to public schools were done by poverty rates, so if you look at Lee’s Summit, (we) received $1.1 million, but Hickman Mills, which is a smaller district, received over $3 million,” Buck said.

That’s the money schools have already gotten from the CARES Act, distributed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The appropriation from Jackson County is in addition to those funds.

To Buck’s point, every district in Jackson County – and across the country – is spending a lot right now because of COVID-19. Most districts have already spent their coronavirus assistance payments, and in the meantime, they’ve had to absorb millions in funding cuts from the state.

But to Bedell’s point, high poverty districts are incurring expenses that their suburban neighbors are not. For instance, on Friday, KCPS approved an additional $210,000 for unlimited data for mobile hot spots. More than 6,000 KCPS students rely on district-provided hot spots to connect to the internet for virtual school.

By contrast, Lee’s Summit has only deployed about 70 hot spots to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to connect to the internet, per a district spokeswoman.

If Jackson County legislators nix White’s proposal and distribute CARES funds to schools by enrollment, KCPS will get about $300,000 less. Lee’s Summit will get about $300,000 more.

Blue Springs, Fort Osage, Grain Valley, Lone Jack and Oak Grove all get more money under an enrollment-based calculation. Center, Grandview, Hickman Mills, Independence and Raytown all get less.

County legislator Crystal Williams asked if it would be possible to take into account each district’s property tax levy. Districts with high levies and high assessed valuations tend to have more to spend per pupil.

But doing so would delay the distribution of county CARES funds to schools still further. And that’s the other piece of this puzzle: The longer county lawmakers delay, the less likely districts will be able to secure matching dollars from the state.

Right now, DESE has a pot of money it’s distributing to schools based on their county allocation. But that money is only available until Oct. 15 – or until it runs out.

“Time is of the essence here,” Buck told the county legislature, “because whoever applies the first gets them first.”

County legislators will continue the discussion next week.

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