Understanding the manner in which Kansas schools are funded has always been challenging. The arrival of COVID-Relief Funding has made it more difficult to understand. In fact, in USD 113, I anticipate even more confusion than usual because we now have short-term Federal COVID-Relief Funds. This is contrasted with a concern about reduced USD 113 operational funds due to declining enrollment.
Pandemic-relief funding, by itself, has led to much confusion. The school district has benefited from SPARK, ESSER 1, ESSER 2 and will benefit from ESSER 3 Funds.
USD 113 has had access to COVID relief funds, that were called SPARK funds, available through our counties. These were the initial funds available to help with additional expenses in a COVID-impacted world.
Similar to spark funds, except that they were allocated directly to the school district, ESSER (I, II, and III) funding has helped defray many of the expenses related to the pandemic. With each new issuance of ESSER funds, more strings or requirements have been attached. At this time, we are developing a budget for ESSER 3 funds. This includes a percentage of the funds that are to be spent on pandemic related “Learning Loss.” ESSER 3 funds also have a requirement to gather input from specific stakeholders. Through this process, we have surveyed community members, staff, students and parents about preferences for how to spend these resources.
As we evaluated the results of the ESSER 3 surveys, we found the number one priority of respondents was updating our heating and cooling systems for increased filtration and improved regulation of fresh air. Fortunately, the USD 113 Board of Education had already been working with a mechanical engineer to get ahead of the curve. At the recent November meeting, the Board approved the low bid on a large HVAC project that will positively impact the Axtell School, Sabetha High School and Wetmore School. This is a long-term approach to providing healthier learning spaces as well as providing a capital improvement that was in need of attention and resources in the near future.
There is the concern that the planning and spending of COVID-relief funds will give the impression that USD 113 has a limitless supply of funds; unfortunately, this is not the case. Our operational funds, General and Supplemental General Funds, are dependent upon student enrollment.
Over the past five years, we have averaged a decline of seven students per year. For that five-year time span, this is the equivalent of 3.2 percent of operational expenses. Fortunately, in an effort to reach the constitutional funding level as determined by the Gannon court case, Kansas has been increasing the base state aid per pupil allocation. This action has somewhat offset the impact of declining enrollment, but inflation and the challenge of maintaining a quality work force through competitive wages is catching up to us. We are finding ourselves having to compete for workers in a market that is driven more by demand than supply.
The problem with Federal COVID-relief funds is that once they are gone, the revenue stream no longer exists. As we plan for the future of our district, sustainability must be a priority. Our operational funds are dependent upon student enrollment. School finance is always confusing, but trying to determine how to best spend one-time funds while identifying the best way to maintaining efficiency is a challenge that we are working through.