-  Steve Richards

Seymour R-II Superintendent Steve Richards

“We must get the okay (from the federal government) for each project. Right now, I’m still learning more about the funding, but what I do know for certain is that we will get this money. It’s ours.”

— Steve Richards, Superintendent, Seymour R-II School District

Last year, the first round of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Stimulus (C.A.R.E.S.) Act funding brought nearly $1 million in needed financial assistance during the national COVID-19 pandemic to the Seymour R-II School District as part of a $2.4-trillion package.

This month, despite the second federal relief bill passed last December being less than half as much of the first round of help at just over $900 billion, Seymour’s school will receive more than four times the funding, officially announced at $4,503,340.

“That’s not theoretical or expected funding ... that amount is official,” Superintendent Steve Richards said Friday after the Seymour R-II Board of Education discussed the issue at Thursday evening’s regular meeting.

Richards said there are some spending caveats associated with the funding; however, he described those prerequisites as very broad.

“Federal C.A.R.E.S. Act II funding must be applied to projects that enhance social distancing or air control,” he explained. “But when determining this, schools have a lot of latitude. There are many things that will qualify.”

He added that the $4.5 million will be distributed by the federal government in Washington, D.C., on a project-by-project basis.

“We must get the okay (from the federal government) for each project,” Richards said. “Right now, I’m still learning more about the funding, but what I do know for certain is that we will get this money. It’s ours.”

At Thursday’s meeting, members of the local school board and Richards discussed potential projects for the new federal funding.

Tentatively, a three-item list was created.

It included:

1. The current high-school renovation project, which has a price tag of $1 million if its entire “wish list” is completed. Initially, the project’s cost was estimated at $800,000.

2. $500,000 for salary increases for certified and non-certified employees.

3. $200,000 for new HVAC systems in all buildings.

Once those projects are completed, more than $2.7 million will remain.

Possible projects to spend this money include:

1. A new pre-school and kindergarten building at the elementary school.

2. A new gymnasium.

3. Paving projects; specifically, the extension of East Garfield Street on the north side of the middle and high schools.

Details of new projects

Richards said the total scope of the current high-school renovation and remodeling project at the east-end entrance of the high school is a two-phase project that now can be fully completed with the allocation of the new $4.5 million in federal funding.

“We’ve already received (federal) approval for this new money to be used on that ongoing project,” he explained.

The first phase set to start once the current 2020-21 school year ends in May includes expanded and remodeled bathrooms at the entrance, an expanded lobby and several new offices, among other amenities.

The second phase, which now will be consolidated with the first phase, includes a second set of bathrooms, a new floor in the current high-school gymnasium and a complete set of new bleachers on the gym’s west wall, as well as a fresh set of paint for the gym.

“The current gym floor is the original floor that was put in when (the gym) was built in 1966,” Richards said. “That floor is now 55 years old, and we can’t sand it down again. There’s nothing left to sand or refinish. It’s shot, and a new floor is badly needed.”

The same is true of the west-wall bleachers.

“We need to replace the bleachers that aren’t even ADA compliant,” he noted. “Again, that’s been a need for a very long time, and this federal money provides us the funding to add that renovation to the current high-school project.”

Regarding school salaries, Richards said he’s suggesting the injection of $500,000 in federal funding to assist the district’s more than 120 full-time employees, as the school is Seymour’s largest employer.

“Even before this federal funding was known, the board and I were going to address the school’s salary schedule for all employees at the upcoming March meeting,” Richards said. “There were significant (salary) increases last year, but we still know that we have a lot more to do for the 2021-22 school year before we’re where we need to be.”

He provided an example of the salary inequities.

“For example, right now on the salary chart a head cook in one of our buildings on the first step (of the chart) is paid just above $10 per hour ... pretty much at the current minimum wage (which is $10.30 per hour),” he explained.

“One of the changes we’re looking at would take that pay rate up to $11.18 per hour.”

For certified teachers, similar increases are planned.

“We’ve explored the option of initially bumping our base pay for teachers by $1,200 a year,” Richards said.

Currently, the base pay for teachers is $30,000 annually.

That would go to $31,200 for the next school year.

For the 2019-20 school year, that rate was $28,700.

“We want to be more competitive on the entry level (for teachers) to attract new talent,” Richards said.

Regarding the installation of new HVAC systems, Richards said units will be replaced, as needed, throughout the school’s campus.

“We have some units as old as 1986,” he said. “Those are units that are now 35 years old.”

Large allotment to R-II

Seymour’s $4,503,340 in federal funding in C.A.R.E.S. Act II is the largest amount given in a many-county radius.

It’s the largest award in Webster County, despite the school district in Marshfield having more than three times as many students in grades kindergarten through 12.

“One key component of this second round of funding was based on U.S. Census Bureau data,” Richards noted.

That data places a huge priority on income and poverty levels within a school district.

“Ours is high, especially for schools in what’s called the Springfield metropolitan area,” Richards said. “Within the county, when compared to a Marshfield or Rogersville, or even a Fordland, ours is high.”

For example, the neighboring Fordland R-III School District, with roughly only 100 fewer students than Seymour in grades K-12, received only $1,197,000 in funding.

Seymour received nearly four times that amount.

Other area districts and their amounts of C.A.R.E.S. Act II funding included Marshfield at $2.5 million, Mountain Grove at $2.45 million, Hartville at $2 million and Mansfield at $1.5 million.

“The Springfield R-12 School District is the largest single public-school district in the state, and they got $27 million in total,” Richards said. “We are 50 times smaller than them, and we got $4.5 million.”

So, Seymour was fortunate?

“Without a doubt,” he said. “This federal assistance allows us to really do great things within our district ... all the way around. We can address many things.”

Best of all, it doesn’t cost local taxpayers a penny.

“To me, it’s a win-win situation,” Richards said. “I think the school board sees it the same way.”

At Thursday’s monthly meeting, he was asking school-board members for their direction in how they felt the district should proceed with the $2.7 million after the three main projects (high-school renovation, salary increases and new HVAC systems) were completed.

“I plan to budget approximately $2 million (of the $2.7 million) in the upcoming 2021-22 budget,” Richards said.

“In essence, as I translate it, we’ve got a two-year phase on spending the $4.5 million. We don’t have the option of just banking it ... it doesn’t work that way. We need to spend it down. That’s the logic behind this federal funding.”

Is a new gymnasium a possibility?

“Sure, it’s a possibility, but I think a priority (for the district) is a new pre-school and kindergarten at the elementary,” he said. “Those students are in non-permanent buildings.”

“But once that project is completed, then I feel we can begin to look at a gym. Right now, we’ve got students in seven grades (6-12) sharing a single gym.”

Moreover, it’s likely more federal funds are coming to Seymour’s school in the future.

“All indications are that if the third $1.9-trillion federal stimulus package (approved earlier this month by both houses of Congress) is signed by President Biden, which it will be, then our district most likely will get more direct federal C.A.R.E.S. Act money,” Richards concluded.

“The last stimulus was $900 billion. We got $4.5 million. This new stimulus is $1.9 trillion, more than twice the total of the last one. Using that formula, if schools again receive priority funding, then I’ll guess that another round of significant funding is coming our way.”

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