Kansas City Public Schools’ far-reaching proposal to restructure the district is an effort to improve academics, extracurriculars and the buildings where students learn.
But it’s also an attempt to stretch the district’s limited funds as far as possible, and to rally the public to embrace a greater level of support for local public schools.
Federal relief dollars, district funds held in reserve, voter-approved bonds and cost savings from school consolidations all factor into the current Blueprint 2030 proposal to close schools and improve academic offerings over the rest of the decade.
The Kansas City Beacon sat down with the district’s interim chief financial officer, Erin Thompson, to learn how the financial puzzle is supposed to fit together.
Strategically using COVID relief funds
Kansas City Public Schools was the one of the largest recipients of the most recent round of federal pandemic relief dollars, known as ESSER funds, in the Kansas City metro.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund was meant to help districts address the challenges of the pandemic, such as helping students catch up academically, improving mental health and increasing COVID safety, including air quality.
The ESSER funding has allowed the district to add some academic support that it now lists as the initial steps of Blueprint 2030 — such as hiring more math and reading specialists to support struggling students, Thompson said. The latest round of funding was more than $64 million.
KCPS also saw the influx of dollars as an opportunity to put a dent in the hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance the district has accumulated over the years by setting aside funds for air quality-related projects such as HVAC replacements.
Cost savings from closing schools
Funding for additional academic initiatives is expected to come from one of the most controversial aspects of the proposal: school closures.
The suggestions laid out during an Oct. 12 meeting included closing eight elementary schools and two high schools, while opening an additional middle school and building two new elementary schools.
The district estimates it would save a combined total of more than $13 million once all schools close, after subtracting the costs of opening a new middle school.
Even though KCPS has stated it does not plan to lay off any teachers — an effort to keep class sizes low and guard against teacher shortages — Thompson said that major cost savings would come from eliminating staff positions.
That isn’t contradictory, Thompson said, because the district expects some teachers will voluntarily leave each year, such as through retirement. If some schools close, not all who leave will need to be replaced.
KCPS would also save some money on utilities and other building operating costs.
Some district presentations have described the increased efficiency as an annual savings. Thompson said that isn’t how it’s registered in the district’s budgets.
“We have to redo our budget every year. So that’s why it’s not a continuous savings, because the year prior, we would have already taken that out of the budget,” she said.
Thompson said including some new buildings in the plan rather than repairing multiple existing buildings will also help reduce ongoing building maintenance costs, which are higher for older structures.
A Blueprint 2030 budget document lays out how the savings could be used. For example, during the next school year, the district could spend more than $1.7 million to add an elementary instrumental music program, $600,000 to train staff on project-based learning and $850,000 on field trips. Later, the district could add elementary science and world language programs.
There’s no mention of funding additional high school programs in the document.
Thompson said that’s because high schools already have many of the programs that would be added to elementary schools. Some high school-specific plans such as career pathways are already included in the operating budget, she added.
Financing building projects
Many area districts habitually issue bonds — a way of borrowing money — to keep their buildings updated and construct new ones as needed.
One major reason KCPS has fallen behind on building repair and construction is that local voters haven’t approved a bond issue since 1967.
Thompson said Kansas City Public Schools has enough money in its reserve funds to cover at least one of the proposed construction projects: a new King Elementary School.
But to complete the proposed plan, KCPS needs bond funding dedicated to improving and expanding the buildings that will remain open, and building a new middle school south of Brush Creek and a new elementary school in the northeast.
In the proposal, an initial bond vote would happen in April 2024 and another would happen in spring 2027.
But before a bond would come up for a vote, Thompson said the district would poll the community to gauge willingness to pass a bond, hold public meetings and offer more details on the request.
Bonds must be repaid from the district’s available funds. Depending on the amount the district requests, that could require a property tax increase. How much money a bond issue would entail and how it would affect property taxes are details that haven’t been settled yet but will be shared with the community before a potential bond issue comes up for a vote.
“These are initial stages,” Thompson said. “We have to even see if the board wants to go that route.”
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