School district plans for decreased funding, providing for educational needs

    The Steelville School District is planning for the potential decrease in funding as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, in addition to preparing for the need for more technology and continuing to provide quality education. Superintendent Mike Whittaker assured the board at their May 21 meeting that the district is currently in good financial condition, but he also urged caution moving forward as a result of the uncertain economy.

    Whittaker reported that he had been part of a conference call with the governor earlier in the week, and as funding is lost as a result of the pandemic, there will be items in the budget that will have to be tightened. He noted that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will be making some cuts, and the local district should prepare for the effects of that for the future.
    Whittaker noted that both the governor’s office and DESE had notified the district to expect withholdings in funding for June, which falls in the current fiscal year for the district, along with significant reductions in next year’s revenues. In a letter to school staff on Friday, Whittaker reported the board had determined to make decisions now to reduce district expenditures for the next fiscal year, which will begin on July 1.
    The decisions made at the May 21 board meeting included eliminating five staff positions throughout the district, including one in the main office, the school resource officer, a vacant third grade teacher position, a vacant sixth grade teacher position, and a vacant title position. The board also voted to eliminate the annual $500 stipend that has been made available to employees who choose to complete a variety of activities in addition to their regular duties. These changes will provide a cost savings of $259,000 for the district.
    In board discussions about the school resource officer position (SRO), Whittaker noted, “Our revenues are going to be less next year. I don’t see any way possible we can do a resource officer now.” He pointed out he would be making recommendations not to fill some open staff positions, and the funding for the SRO was about the same cost annually as for a teacher.
    Board member Jason Evans asked whether the SRO position could be added back in if there was available funding, and Whittaker noted it was a position the district liked having and it was possible, but added, “We are going to have to make some tough decisions and we have to prioritize. We will have to make decisions about teaching personnel and technology.”
    Although several board members expressed their regrets in having to take this step, the board voted to approve Whittaker’s recommendation to give notice to the city of Steelville that the school district will not be renewing the contract for the school resource officer for next year.
    Also during the meeting, the board approved two purchases for educational needs. One was for new reading instructional materials for the elementary at a cost of $91,188.02. Whittaker noted in his staff letter, “While this is a hefty expense, it is actually cheaper than the iReady program we are currently using. This is a much-needed upgrade that will provide our teachers with needed consistency throughout the grade levels. In addition, these materials will also be available virtually.”
    The other purchase approved by the board was for technology improvements in the amount of $239,000. The district will be moving forward with a proposal to provide a device to all students and teachers (Chromebooks and tablets). This plan also includes the possibility of adding a new technology coach position in order to assist teachers with implementing the technology. The funds for this project are coming from federal CARES Act funding.
    Whittaker told the board that the district could expect to receive around $290,000 in funding from the federal government through the CARES Act, but needed to have a plan for spending it in order to apply for the funds.
    “As we went through this crisis, the administration team and I met weekly on Wednesdays,” he said. “Through that process we realized, if we have to start the school year online, we will be behind in the game.”
    He noted the district does have “quite a lot of Chromebooks now” but recommended  the district become a one-to-one school with this funding, and explore the addition of a staff position to help manage the instructional side of implementing the technology. A “one-to-one” school is one that has an electronic device for each enrolled student in order to provide access to the Internet, digital course materials and digital textbooks.
    Jake Martin, the technology coordinator for the school district, presented a proposal to the board. He noted, “Our idea is to use a combination of devices already in the district and buying new equipment.” The plan is to use tablets for Pre-K to second grade students and Chromebooks for grades three to 12. These can be used both on campus and at home. Teachers will have the same device as their students.
    Martin reported the Chromebooks are “durable” and will have cases, too. Tablets will also have cases for protection.
    Martin also told the board, “The disconnect that I have is that I’m the technician—I’m the Maytag repairman—how you implement it is (up to teachers and educational staff).” He noted that was why there had been discussion of a teacher who could serve as a technology coach for the other educators and introduced high school teacher Adam Craghead to discuss that further.
    Craghead noted his initial questions would be, “What do we need? Where do we need to go?” and then he would take those answers to start gathering the appropriate resources to put into the hands of teachers.
    “We will need to limit apps and teach how to use them, how to improve lessons with them,” Craghead said.
    Martin noted that all teachers were “on board” with the proposal.
    Whittaker pointed out the addition of this program could help if schools are forced to close again. “It’s about getting prepared to do more and more of this at home. I really think it’s time to move forward. I think this is money we wouldn’t have had, and to me, it’s a no-brainer to make this choice.” But he also pointed out, “This is not simply a ‘go home and do school virtually’—it’s also adding technology to the classroom.”
    The school board approved the purchase of the additional technology and authorized the superintendent to explore the addition of a technology educator/coach position.