Community Pulse: Grant funds have allowed MCHS to add staff and programs

Like many school districts, Morris Community High School received several emergency relief and technology grants as a result of the pandemic. These six grants for MCHS totaled almost $1.5 million and have deadlines by which the funds must be spent, as well as limitations on how the funds can be used. More than 85% of these dollars have been spent.

Through careful planning, the district has been able to add or expand several new positions, including a math interventionist, a paraprofessional and a nurse’s office assistant. Adding staff with grant funds creates a challenge, as we must plan for what happens after the grants run out. If the positions add value to the district, then ideally they are not temporary.

In our case, the timing of several upcoming retirements – at least 10 over the next six years – will ideally allow us to maintain these added positions. Savings are often realized when teachers retire since those hired as replacements typically have less experience and therefore a lower salary. However, we will not only need to replace every retiring teacher, but we will likely have to add some teachers in the near future. We also will negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with teachers in 2023, and we must pay teachers competitively given the challenge of filling those positions.

Other uses of our emergency grant funds include the enhancement of technology, such as licenses for educational programs, new devices, and improved internet connectivity. A portion of grant funds must be used for after-school and summer instructional support, such as tutoring and credit recovery, and we have been able to make this happen. Many health and cleaning supplies were purchased, and additional storage space was constructed. The architectural costs associated with a concept study for building renovations also was funded, and we will continue to explore those options.

The influx of grant funds in a relatively short period of time also allowed the district to build up its fund balances, resulting in an improved Illinois financial profile score that took us from Early Warning to Financial Recognition, the highest rating, for three consecutive years. Maintaining this rating is both a goal and a challenge, given the increased costs we are paying for many items, just like everyone else. Some of our maintenance projects have had to be delayed due to exorbitant cost increases or supply chain issues. Yet those projects must happen.

As we plan for the years ahead, we are strategic about which funds need more dollars and whether we can reduce the amount we borrow in working cash bonds, something we have done now for two consecutive years. We benefited from borrowing larger amounts when interest rates were historically low. We also continue our shared service agreements with other local districts, with transportation and technology being the main shared services, resulting in significant savings for the community.

We are also grateful for the generous support of local donors, which most recently includes the Community Foundation of Grundy County. Their donation of more than $16,000 will help support the spring musical and also provide new instruments to our music program. Donations such as these make a huge difference in what we can offer our students.