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Superintendent pinpoints funding needs during pandemic and beyond

District needs span safety and wellness, academics, infrastructure

Godfrey-Lee — Superintendent Kevin Polston has been a strong advocate for equity in all areas of education. He was recently appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as chairperson of Michigan’s Student Recovery Advisory Council,  guiding the work of helping the state’s education system recover from the traumatic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the new emergency funds approved for schools under Congress’ Education Stabilization Fund, Godfrey-Lee, a 1,800-student district with a high poverty rate, is set to receive more than $2 million in additional COVID-19 relief. The amount being given to each school district was determined by a formula based on federal Title I provisions for low-income schools.

In an interview with School News Network, Polston weighed in on the impact these funds could have on Godfrey-Lee students and the district as a whole. He also discussed whether equity is being considered in this formula for disbursement, and how equitable support of education benefits the surrounding community. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Kevin Polston

Were you surprised that the current emergency relief funds are about four times higher than what was granted in the fall?

I would say I was pleased that the federal government came together in a time of need to really address education and keeping our schools open. School operations have been a challenge, and (when it comes to) virtual learning, we know we have a lot more to do there, but I’m really proud of our teachers and our students and families for how they’ve responded.

For us to continue with virtual learning as an option for our families, along with in-person learning, we know it’s going to take additional resources. Many may still want virtual learning in the fall due to the continued presence of COVID. So, I appreciate that our federal government realized that for us to maintain education as we need it, and as our students deserve it, is going to take additional resources.

This emergency funding was supposed to be distributed by the end of January, but funds have not been released to Michigan schools yet. What’s going on?

Those funds are being held up in the state Legislature over differences in how to spend them between the governor and the legislature. We’re asking that they get the money to the schools as Congress approved it, as soon as possible.

Related story: Districts ready to spend COVID relief dollars — once state allocates them

The governor’s supplemental proposal has a blend of state and federal dollars. The best-case scenario for us is, if they’re going to pass the supplemental proposal, then please, let’s do it now. If they’re not (going to pass it), let’s get the federal dollars to the schools right away. If we’re going to use the money for any planning, like summer learning opportunities for kids this year, then we need to get going on that.

What kind of impact does this additional funding have on Godfrey-Lee?

It’s significant, there’s no question about it. But we also know that the state of funding for education prior to COVID wasn’t what it needed to be. And we know that there’s an educator shortage, so we want to make sure that we’re keeping the best talent and that we’re developing future talent with a strong academic foundation.

We also have to make sure that we’re addressing the traumatic impacts of COVID — whether it’s social, emotional or mental health; racial trauma that students have experienced; academic recovery; or physical health and well-being. We’re doing all of that while also preparing for the next school year. COVID is still going to be here — and that means PPE, smaller class sizes, vaccine distribution and more. In other words, there are a lot of factors that we need to consider when planning for these funds.

‘We can’t allow our education system to flounder, nor fail, due to the short-term pressures that have been caused by a pandemic well outside anyone’s control.’

— Kevin Polston, superintendent, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools

That doesn’t even touch the facility inequities that exist. As you know, we passed a bond in fall 2020 for Lee Middle and High School, but we still have two schools, the East Lee Campus and Godfrey Elementary, which are not at the physical level we want them to be. So, for example, some of these funds may be used for air quality with upgraded HVAC systems – we know that’s really important in the COVID era. An estimate of the cost for new HVAC systems is $45/square foot, and a classroom on average is 1,000 square feet. That means $45,000 per classroom for a new HVAC system. So, yes, it’s a significant amount of funds that we will be receiving, but there’s also a significant number of priorities that we need to address.

Have you determined yet how Godfrey-Lee will specifically use these relief funds?

We’re still going through that process to identify need. But these are a few things that we’re exploring:

  • Infrastructure improvements
  • Summer learning for academic recovery
  • Social/emotional supports for our students — either with our core curriculum or with additional supports
  • Physical health supports
  • COVID preparedness for the fall
  • Supporting virtual learners with rich, engaging curriculum
  • Professional learning for our staff
  • Continued COVID testing, offered at no cost to our families

This is a broad range of things, but we’ll continue to keep health and safety at the forefront of whatever we do, and that’s going to take additional resources.

Do you have specific priority spending areas, or do you evaluate the district’s biggest needs at the time funding is received?

We have a strategic design with goals and focus areas, so we look at how we can amplify those efforts. With that said, any time you receive one-time funds, you have to be careful. For example, we can’t use that money to hire lots of new staff when there won’t be those funds next year to sustain those staff. So, while there is a need to continue with reduced class sizes and increased safety measures, we have to make sure that we can sustain whatever we start.

Another element to consider is the infrastructure upgrades that have been part of our long-range planning. Those may now be a possibility. That would make our schools a great learning environment in the immediate future, but also offer sustainability in the long term, which would save the district money over time.

So, it’s really about prioritizing those interests — we have to address the here and now because our students are hurting, but we also have to be good stewards of our long-range services. If we have an opportunity to make some of those infrastructure upgrades, that’s something we really need to consider.

Can you specify what some of those infrastructure upgrades might be?

  • New HVAC systems: Air quality, especially as it relates to COVID safety, is important.
  • Climate control in classrooms: If we’re going to have summer learning (opportunities) to address academic recovery, but we don’t have air conditioning in our schools, then that’s something that needs to be addressed.
  • Water quality: We know this has been an issue in Michigan in particular, and we do have good clean water in our buildings. However, we know that many of our families have lead service lines to their homes or other areas of concern, so that’s something we want to look at.
  • Furniture: Our classroom furniture is original for most teachers in this district. We want our kids to have the best quality learning environments. It’s possible that new furniture purchases could help us with better social distancing or help keep our classroom environments as safe as possible.

There are big differences in the amount that each district will receive from these federal funds. From an equity standpoint, are these funds being distributed in a way that makes sense?

I’d say that, for the first time, we’ve seen an equity formula really considered for this level of education funding — and I’m not going to apologize for that. ButI don’t think it takes into consideration the reality that, regardless of the school funding situation, every district has increased costs with COVID-19 that should be addressed.Every student brings with them additional costs under COVID.

I believe that there should be a weighted formula for how we fund our schools that considers the unique needs of each child, whether they’re an English-language learner, whether they qualify for free or reduced lunch, whether they’re a special education student. When we look at what the needs of each child are, that’s how we’re really going to address that.

With that said, we’re not currently using a weighted formula. What doesn’t get acknowledged is that we’re also not considering the other types of school funding inequities. I hear from my colleagues in other districts that the formula (for distribution) disproportionately impacts districts that have high Title I populations — which is true. However, those districts with higher tax bases have been disproportionately helped by being able to approve millages that can pay for capital projects. And those capital projects will, in the end, offset operational funds. Things like technology or roofing, that (Godfrey-Lee) has had to use general funds or sinking funds for, other districts can use their capital bond projects for. And that frees up operational dollars for them. So, we really have to look at a holistic approach to how we fund schools. Right now, we’re kind of cobbling together a bunch of formulas, and that really isn’t what we need.

In summary, I’d say the formula isn’t equitable. And I’ll give you an example. Godfrey-Lee has the highest percentage of free/reduced lunch students in the county, the highest percentage of students of color, and the highest percentage of English-language learners. And yet, Grand Rapids Public Schools has about eight times our enrollment and they’re getting 15 times the amount of money. There are flaws in the formula, even if it is equity-based. I appreciate that it has an equity element to it, but I also believe there needs to be more balance to acknowledge the increased costs that all school districts are encountering in this pandemic.

Does the fact that Congress said, “We need to do more to help schools” give you any encouragement that people are realizing there may have been funding issues in the past?

I think what happened is this: The states typically get revenue through income taxes, sales tax, property taxes — those are their big-ticket items. And they’ve all suffered through COVID – they’ve been propped up a bit through stimulus funds, but states cannot print money. States have to have a balanced budget, and without that, they’re really handcuffed. But the federal government can approve a budget that isn’t balanced. So, I think the federal government realizes the critical role that it plays in not only stabilizing schools, but also stabilizing our economies.

How does that trickle down to help the Kent County education community?

Well, schools rely on income tax, sales tax and property tax, so we want a vibrant economy because that’s the best way to stabilize schools in the long term. In the short term, we need to make sure that school funding in absence of that expected growth in the state economy is maintained. We need a stop-gap measure now. But to continue to have well-funded schools we have to have a thriving economy. So, how we invest in recovery will be pertinent to how we all succeed in the long term.

What else would you like to add?

Going into COVID, schools were not appropriately funded. We have a diminishing talent pipeline, yet our education system is our country’s talent-development mechanism. And that takes investment. We have to understand that education is a long-term investment. It’s not a short-term thing.

We can’t allow our education system to flounder, nor fail, due to the short-term pressures that have been caused by a pandemic well outside anyone’s control. It’s about our collective priorities, and our children are among our most vulnerable populations that deserve the best from those that are in charge of serving them.

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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