Schools in Labette County are about three weeks away from opening, but Wednesday superintendents learned coronavirus relief funds believed available to help ensure safety of staff and students have been drastically cut by the Labette County Commission.

Labette County received nearly $4 million of the $400 million from the federal government in relief funds to be distributed statewide.

The Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK)  task force distributed the relief funds to counties at $192 per resident. The county’s money is being split among Labette Health, cities and counties based on population, schools and Labette Community College. Essentially the Local Emergency Planning Committee translated that to $192 per student in K-12 schools and the college, totaling about $787,200 for all the K-12 schools in the county and $418,176 for LCC. Based on enrollment, this LEPC plan would have provided $326,400 to Labette County USD 506, $259,200 to Parsons USD 503, $153,600 to Oswego USD 504 and $48,000 to Chetopa USD 505.

However, the county commission overrode the LEPC’s submitted plan, after hearing from Judge Fred Johnson that more relief money needed to be directed to the district court to ensure suspended jury trials can take place again and defendants’ rights to speedy trials are not being violated. That would happen through the remodeling of the Oswego courthouse to manage trials during the coronavirus, which the county has said is more cost effective than doing the work on the Parsons Judicial Center.

Keeping $1.5 million for the county to remodel the courts resulted in $487,000 in relief funds being cut to K-12 education, leaving $300,000 to be divided among every school in the county, which daily house more than 4,000 students, not to mention teachers, administrators and staff.

Two of the county’s four superintendents attended the LEPC meeting Thursday in person.

Douglas Beisel, Oswego USD 504 superintendent, told the LEPC members at their regular meeting that the district had estimated about $500,000 in costs to prepare and maintain safety operations throughout the year and were counting on the SPARK funds and potentially elementary and secondary school education relief funds, if they are awarded, to help cover those costs. While no district can guarantee the safety of students and staff from the virus, districts are planning to address safety measures to the best of their ability.

Based on the commission’s decision, Oswego USD 504 will now, if the funds are divided proportionally, receive only $42,000 in SPARK relief funds, and Chetopa, proportionally, would receive about $21,000.

“We’re all scrambling to find funds to make sure we have a safe environment for our kids and staff,” Beisel said. “We’re grateful for the $42,000, but it isn’t going to take care of our needs.”

“Your school districts house your largest populations in the county every day and they are being least recognized,” Chetopa USD 505 superintendent Craig Bagshaw said, expressing his discouragement.

Bagshaw said the county has not been receptive to including the schools in the SPARK funding from the beginning. He said no one with the county even approached the school districts about the funding being available to them. They said they learned about SPARK funds’ availability from Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson and other school districts in the state, rather than the help being communicated to them from the county.

Labette County Emergency Management Director Charlie Morse told superintendents his recommendation in the first plan expressed the need for a good portion of the funding to go to schools, so students could return to school as safely as possible this fall.

Morse added that the only hope remaining for districts to receive more money in this round of relief funding is the commissioners’ new plan has to be submitted to the state by Aug. 15, and given what they want to use the relief money for, the state may not approve the plan, and the county will have to submit a new one.

While the superintendents understand the courts’ needs, they said it is hard for them to rationalize new tiles in the courthouse outweighing the safety of children in the use of coronavirus relief funds. 

Bagshaw said all of the Labette County superintendents are very fiduciarily responsible with their funds, and they are not looking for bells and whistles, just the minimal things to keep students and staff safe.

District superintendents submitted to the LEPC materials lists needed to reopen school buildings verifying how the funds would be spent. Items ranged from masks and touchless hand sanitizer dispensers, to fillable water stations to replace drinking fountains and machines to quickly scan hundreds of students’ temperatures so they are not losing valuable educational time standing in lines all day.

They said they could be looking at having to tap into capital expenses or contingency reserve funds to cover the costs of what they need for coronavirus safety measures, and without the SPARK or ESR to reimburse those funds, the schools will have to look at cutting expenses somewhere. Given teacher and administrator contracts are already in place, outstanding expenses may have to be covered at the cost of some classified and staff persons’ employment or not staffing a position at a time when more people are needed than ever and districts are already struggling to fill some jobs, like substitute teachers, custodians and bus drivers. 

Added financial concerns are lingering in the background as districts are also looking at the potential for declining enrollment based on parents deciding to home school or moving to online K-12 schools, for varying reasons, such as health conditions. This will result in reduced state funding to the schools and further financial hardships imposed on districts.

Schools might have the money to buy some personal protective supplies up front, but they said they imagine they will run out quick, so they will need some kind of financial supports.

Those may come from the federal government, minus political rifts preventing passage of bills. The Senate is considering a new round of funding to states to help brace K-12 budgets, so there is more help in sight if any of those bills are passed.

Republicans this month proposed $1 trillion in relief funds that would include $105 billion for education — $70 billion for K-12 and $30 billion for higher education, with the focus for spending being on reopening priorities. Democrats proposed $345 billion for education, including $175 billion for K-12 schools, and $132 billion for higher education.

If approved, how either proposal would break down to funds distributed to individual states, and to the 13,506 individual districts within the states, is unknown. 

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