Central High School students connected with pre-kindergarten learners at Boyd IB World School Dec. 13. High School students read classic childhood stories and led preK Boyd learners in activities that connected to the stories they shared. (Photo: Springfield Public Schools, photo by Ren Luebbering)

Recently freed up federal relief funds will allow Springfield Public Schools to add staff across all its primary and secondary education campuses. But the funding is also being used to avoid cutbacks at a time when the district is projecting a $9.4-million drop in state funding.

The federal money is part of the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed into law in early 2021. Missouri school districts get nearly a $2 billion slice of that money, which was just released by the Missouri State Legislature on Feb. 24. 

Last September, Springfield Public Schools anticipated it would get about $60.7 in relief money, and expected to devote just over half of the funds for staffing and support, their primary need. But the latest budgeting calculations have upped the total relief funds to $61.6 million, and 70-75 percent is now expected to go to staffing, John Mulford, deputy superintendent, said Monday.

“We’re going to really focus on that staffing piece,” Mulford said.

Part of the reason the percentage devoted to staffing has increased is due to a significant projected drop in state funding for the district. The $9.4 million state aid funding reduction estimate is based on average daily attendance figures for students declining during the pandemic. The estimated drop would represent approximately 3 percent of the SPS operating budget, according to the district. 

The official fiscal year 2021 enrollment count for Springfield Public Schools was 23,624, down sharply from 25,619 counted during the 2020 fiscal year. The 2022 fiscal year count increased to 24,075 students, according to SPS data. With the pandemic-era drop in enrollment came poor school attendance figures, Mulford said, pointing out that kids had to stay home due to quarantines or other precautionary measures on top of other reasons that students are absent from school. 

“So with that comes a reduction in state aid, because we’re funded off of student attendance,” Mulford said. “Essentially, we’re going to use a part of those funds, certainly, to maintain the staff that we have instead of cutting back.”

Adding positions to the district

The federal funding will also be used to add positions across the district. Two full-time certified support staff members will be hired in each of the district’s high school and middle school buildings, and one such staffer will be hired at each of the elementary schools. Mulford said that staff input was required at each school as part of the process of determining the key needs that the added positions would address. 

“So some buildings may say, we just need an additional third-grade teacher or an additional science teacher, where others may say, we really need a behavior interventionist that can work with students on behaviors,” Mulford said. “So really, it’s what do we need the most in our building.”

Where is the money coming from?

The $61.6 million in federal money comes to Springfield Public Schools as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief plan. Abbreviated as either ARP ESSER or ESSER III, the funding is the latest of several rounds of stimulus targeted at schools across the country in the wake of the pandemic. Learn more about the latest funding here

In October, the U.S. Department of Education approved the Missouri plan for distributing the state’s nearly $2 billion portion of the funding. However, the state’s Department of Education and Secondary Education did not get legislative approval to distribute the money until late last month. 

Last September, Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Grenita Lathan presented the school board with an initial look at how the district would use its ARP ESSER funding. Using a portion of the funds to offset drops in state funding was factored in at the time, and it was also accounted for in a previous round of federal funding. SPS received $27.3 million in the previous round of emergency federal funds (ESSER II), and earmarked over $4.8 million of it to retain staff “while experiencing a six percent reduction in enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year,” according to the 2021-2022 SPS budget.

To see a list of all the initiatives that were fully or partially funded with ESSER II money, read the SPS 2021-2022 budget.

Mulford said SPS is also working on using the funding for additional staffing positions at several schools in need. At the elementary school level, some schools are adding positions called school community liaisons, a role that Mulford said brings community and school resources together to support family needs. Other schools may add social workers.

“We’re working through the budgeting process right now,” Mulford said. “We’ll have that all firmed up in June when we adopt next year’s budget. But as we talked through how to best use those funds over the last few months, it’s going back to people. We know — and the research supports — that the best way to impact students for growth is through people, not programs, not software. It’s the people that we put in place. So that’s where our focus will be.”

Staffing was the top need identified at the start of the 2021-2022 school year when surveys were conducted of teachers, staff, administrators, parents, community members and high school students. Asked how federal funding could benefit their schools, three main areas of need presented: maintaining and increasing staffing levels, providing academic support systems for students and providing support for social-emotional needs of staff and students. 

Other programs that will be funded

The latest federal funding will be distributed nearly evenly over the next two fiscal years, Mulford said, although some school administrators asked for and received a head start on hiring. Along with hiring additional staff, the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER III, funds will allow for programs and positions currently funded through the previous round of emergency relief federal funding (ESSER II) to continue. 

Some of those programs have included funding 69,000 hours of student tutoring by SPS certified staff, hiring two student recovery specialists to re-engage with families whose students left the school system during the pandemic and investing $3 million in mental health programs for students and employees. 

Mulford said that the district will look to use the latest funds to continue the SHINE program, which used $3.5 million in previous federal relief funding and community partnerships to provide before-and-after-school care for students at every public school. SHINE was developed in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Springfield, Springfield Dream Center, SPARC and Ozarks Regional YMCA. 

SPS’ $61.6 million is part of the $1.9 billion in ESSER III funding allocated to Missouri. In late February, the Missouri General Assembly passed House Bill 3014, which granted the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the power to allocate the latest Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to local education agencies like the Springfield Public School District. Gov. Mike Parson signed it into law on Feb. 24. All of the ESSER III funds must be obligated by Sept. 30, 2024, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires that a minimum of 20 percent of the funds must address students’ academic, social, emotional and mental health needs as a result of lost instructional time during the pandemic.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson