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Ideas in works for Columbia Public Schools' stimulus funds

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:26 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 1, 2009

COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools administrators expect the district will soon receive $6.3 million in federal stimulus money for special education and Title I.

The funds must be spent no later than the end of the 2010-2011 school year, with $4 million going toward special education and $2.3 million reserved for Title I.

Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for student support services, said there are no official plans, but there are several ideas for how the money will be spent.

One of the district’s goals is to reduce the number of leased buildings. That’s why the most likely option is to convert Field Elementary into the district’s special education facility, Barnett said. The district leases Bearfield School for special education. 

Barnett said students from Field Elementary will move out of the building and into the new Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School after the winter holiday, leaving the Field Elementary building vacant. 

She said much of the stimulus money would be spent on renovations to make the school better suited for older children, including upgrading the bathrooms, repairing the gymnasium and building a waist-high fence around the schoolyard.  

School Board President Jan Mees said she's heard that some people living close to the school are concerned about the possibility of converting it to a special-education facility, however.

“This might necessitate a slower decision-making process on the part of the district,” Mees said.

In addition to repairs and renovations, stimulus money could go toward increasing student access to music and art education.

“Oftentimes children with disabilities are quite gifted in those areas, “ Barnett said, “but we are not able to provide them with those opportunities at the level we would like to.”

The funds could also allow the district to retain the services of its psychology interns, who help provide evaluations of the progress made by special education students.  Barnett said funding for those interns was cut this year, but she hopes the stimulus funds would allow the district to hire five interns over the next two years.  

Children suspended from school may be directed to Field Elementary as well, instead of being sent home.

“We’re not taking positive steps by suspending them,” Barnett said. “We need to work with them to close the achievement gap.”

Separate from the $6.3 million in stimulus funds the district expects to receive, Chief Operations Officer Nick Boren said, administrators also applied for $18 million in qualified school construction bonds.

The bonds are an opportunity for school districts to receive interest-free loans. The district is only responsible for paying back what it borrows, while the federal government picks up the bill on the interest.  

$141 million in bonds is available in Missouri for 2009 and $141 million for 2010.  Boren said preliminary figures indicate Missouri school districts have applied for $300 million in bonds so far this year.

Because the bonds are prorated, meaning districts will get a percentage of what they applied for based on the total amount requested throughout the state, he said, the chances of the district receiving the full $18 million is “slim to none.”

Boren estimates Columbia will receive 47 percent, or roughly $8.5 million, of the  amount requested as an interest-free bond. He said the money would go toward the construction of a third high school in Columbia.

“We would save millions of dollars,” Boren said.  

A $120 million bond issue is slated to go to the public in April 2010, of which $67 million is set aside for construction of the new high school on St. Charles Road, Boren said.

If the stimulus money allows the district to do more construction, it fulfills its purpose, Barnett said. 

“The intent of the funds are that we keep or create jobs,” she said.


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