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 pre-K Boyd learners in activities that connected to the stories they shared. (Photo by Ren Luebbering/ Springfield Public Schools)

Springfield Public Schools had been bracing for a roughly $9 million cut in state funding due to pandemic-era drops in attendance rates, free and reduced meal applications and enrollment figures. But Cara Stassel, executive director of SPS business services, said during a budget update at Tuesday’s school board meeting that she recently got some “very good news” from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

Stassel said the state education department informed her it will allow districts to use the highest rates of attendance and enrollment of the past four fiscal years, rather than the typical three, to determine state funding levels. That means SPS can use data from the last pre-pandemic school year to help determine state financing for the district. 

“We are very, very grateful for that,” Stassel said. “It’s very good news as we continue to just navigate the impact of the pandemic on our students.”

John Mulford, SPS deputy superintendent, told the board that, while things can change between now and when the final budget is presented to the board for approval in June, the formula change that the education department is recommending would eliminate the projected state funding deficit for SPS.

“This is huge, and something that schools have been advocating for,” Mulford said. “And we didn’t think it was going to happen, but (Monday) was a good day.”

Kari Monsees, deputy commissioner for financial services at the state education department, said the state statute regarding state aid eligibility already addresses the issue of apportioning school funds to the year preceding one in which an infectious disease, contagion, epidemic, plague or similar condition substantially reduced attendance. The department has been sending out information to districts that this school year qualifies as one of those years. Because it’s already addressed in state statute, Monsees said he didn’t expect there would be any additional legislative decisions needed to move forward to amend the typical formula for calculating district funding.

“What we are doing now is this week, we are confirming that we believe the attendance has been impacted again this year for some very obvious reasons, with the Delta wave in the fall, and then the Omicron spike here in December, January and February,” Monsees said. “It’s been clearly impacted. And we’re just letting them know that we believe that has been triggered, that provision in statute, and we’ll be applying that to our state payment calculations.”

Enrollment, average daily attendance and free and reduced lunch rates have all decreased since the 2020 fiscal year.

  • Enrollment has rebounded some after a 1,995-student drop from 2020 (25,619 students) to 2021 (23,624).
  • Enrollment stands at 24,075 in the 2022 fiscal year.
  • The latest average daily attendance rate is almost 90.8 percent — a drop of about three percentage points from 2020.
  • And the SPS student population that applied for free and reduced meals has dropped from 53.3 percent in 2020 to 46.6 percent in 2022 during a time in the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived requirements to qualify for free breakfast and lunch.

The lower numbers all factor into the formula for how key state funding for SPS is totaled, Mulford told the board.

“Enrollment is a piece of it,” he said. “But probably the bigger piece is the fewer number of free and reduced applications we got. That’s about $4 million of that. We should be getting an accurate number on that, because the free meals are going away for next year. The other part is attendance. We changed from this mindset of incentivizing kids to be here to, ‘If you even think you feel bad, stay home.’” 

Mulford and Stassel said the hope and goal for the 2023 fiscal year is a return to normal in terms of attendance, student enrollment and free and reduced meal program enrollment. In the meantime, the funding formula change will help SPS continue to weather the effects of the pandemic, Stassel said. 

“I texted Dr. Mulford,” Stassel told the school board. “I said, ‘I’m not quite at tears of joy, but I’m close.’”

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