More than $25 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to Moore County Schools will cover wide-ranging expenses over the next three years: from activity buses and teacher assistants to new running tracks at Pinecrest and North Moore high schools.
Administrators told the school board on Tuesday that those needs and many others intersect with the directive to spend that money on preventing the transmission of COVID-19 and recovering from the pandemic’s effects over the last year.
The district has until May 7 to apply to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction with an outline of how it plans to use its coronavirus relief funds. The Moore County Board of Education got its first view of the proposed plan in a special meeting this week.
Administrators expect $25 million from two separate Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief packages to be available on July 1. Of that, $7.8 million comes from the federal government’s December stimulus package and must be spent by Sept. 30, 2023.
Moore County Schools has until Sept. 30, 2024 to spend the other $17.6 million, which comes from the more recent American Rescue Plan.
There are some limitations on how the district is allowed to use the funding, but officials are working under a broad interpretation of what qualifies as COVID-19 response. School districts are required to designate at least 20 percent of that latest and largest tranche of funds to help students who have fallen behind after a year of remote learning and hybrid schedules.
The school board is scheduled to take a vote on the proposed plan during Monday’s meeting, before the district submits it to the state.
Recover and rebuild
As presented, Moore County Schools’ plans involve spending $7.8 million — or about 30 percent of its total relief funds — addressing that learning loss.
That will cover $3 million for the addition of teacher assistants in second grade classrooms around the district for the next two school years, as well as new summer learning programs at $3.5 million. Moore County Schools once staffed second and third grade classes with assistants, but those positions were gradually cut over the years to help compensate for state shortfalls.
Another $943,000 in that category will go toward new screening software to help identify which areas students most struggle with.
Other new staffing that the stimulus will cover includes $275,000 over the next three years for psychologists and other mental health professionals to help identify special needs students who qualify for additional services.
About $2.7 million will go toward technology, including $1.3 million to replace 3,800 of the Chromebook computers currently issued to middle and high school students and $800,000 for service to internet hotspots issued over the last year to students who don’t have access at home.
Some of the relief funding will go toward helping the school district ride out the secondary effects of the pandemic, namely a loss of state funding due to the decline in enrollment over the past summer. Moore County Schools estimates that about 400 students left the system when the district moved to virtual learning and hybrid scheduling.
That will be reflected by a decline in state funding starting in the coming year. The state held local school districts “harmless” for enrollment loss related to the pandemic in 2020-2021, but the current year’s low enrollment will factor into the state’s estimate of Moore County Schools’ enrollment for several years to come.
“The reduction of about 400 students would have forced a substantial reduction in programs and services and staffing because of the loss of state funding based on that loss of student enrollment,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey.
Administrators have already allocated $1.2 million from the first round of coronavirus relief in 2020 toward plugging that hole for the coming year. They’re planning to use a similar amount to balance the budgets for the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years.
“Right now we’re paying approximately $1 million of locally-paid staff from the ESSER 1 funding. We’ll have that amount for fiscal year 2022, and this continues to carry that over into 2023 and 2024,” said Andrew Cox, Moore County Schools’ executive officer for budget and finance. “At that point if we don’t have sufficient funding from the county to maintain that, there will have to be cuts or attrition.”
Administrators say that should circumstances change over the next three years, with for instance rapid enrollment growth that brings with it a commensurate spike in state funding, they reallocate funds through a new application to the state.
The district’s athletics and performing arts programs will also receive an infusion of funds in the coming year, $225,000 total, to help compensate for missed fundraisers and the loss of ticket sales over the last year.
Board member Ed Dennison asked for a specific breakdown of where funds will be funnelled to the district’s three state-designated Restart schools — Aberdeen Elementary, Robbins Elementary and Southern Middle — suggesting the addition of teachers to shrink class sizes or add more pre-kindergarten classes. Board Chair Libby Carter asked about the potential to add teacher assistants in third or fourth grade as well as second.
Grimesey pointed out that any new staff will have to be hired on a temporary basis, as the district would have to come up with a new way to pay for them after the 2023-2024 school year.
“This is about COVID-19 pandemic recovery, and we have to be very candid with the public and with the county commissioners that this isn’t sort of a work around to some sort of permanent structure; this is all for the next three years,” he said. “We need to be candid with anybody hired into those positions that they’re coming in for a temporary period of time.”
Board member Robert Levy cautioned against creating a “fiscal cliff” and said that the plan should include a limited number of staff positions that the schools might like to keep once that funding expires.
“I believe that what’s really going to happen at the end of that period is that somebody is going to say to the county commissioners: ‘We’re going to lose 30 aides for these poor children if you don’t give us X amount more money’ and we’re going to have to look forward to that kind of a debate,” he said.
“These are very, very worthy positions and I don’t want to get anybody wrong here, I’m just trying to figure this out because I believe you are going to go to the county commissioners, or go to some sort of other funding to keep them, because they are so worthy.”
The proposed spending plan would direct about 45 percent of the total, or $11.4 million, to Moore County Schools’ exhaustive portfolio of overdue building maintenance projects.
This past February, the school board approved a list of near-term building priorities including 37 items totaling $8.4 million. That would be funded over the next year or so as the district sells off retired elementary school campuses and frees up “contingency” funds built into the construction budgets for the three new elementary schools.
But administrators have determined that more than half of that list fulfills the intent of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief package. So the proposal now in front of the school board applies $5.7 million to those projects, including:
- New Pinecrest and North Moore tracks at $1.3 million and $943,000 respectively,
- 944,000 for a new heating pump and upgraded ductwork at Robbins Elementary,
- $530,000 for new equipment and fans in kitchens around the district
- $170,000 for new HVAC system at the district’s central office,
- Replacing the lift station at Highfalls Elementary and pump station at New Century Middle, and
- About $215,000 total for water heaters and boilers at Cameron Elementary, Sandhills Farm Life, the Community Learning Center, Vass-Lakeview Elementary, Elise Middle, Southern Middle, and the central office
The COVID-19 relief funding would cover another 16 projects not on that previously-approved list including:
- $960,000 to add outdoor tables and canopies around the district,
- $692,000 to renovate Pinecrest’s physical education locker rooms,
- $555,000 for a new air system at West End Elementary,
- $480,000 at Carthage Elementary to replace heat pumps on the roof of Building 1 and replace condensate return piping in four buildings, and
- $630,000 over three years to buy six activity buses.
That last suggestion stemmed from a fierce debate between board members at the end of last year. In December the board agreed by a 4-3 split vote to spend $95,000 in military impact aid funding on a new activity bus, Moore County School’s first since 2011.
At that time the board’s three new members criticized administrators for not establishing a fund for that purchase and said that a new bus should only be considered in the larger scheme of the district’s overall list of building needs.
John Birath, Moore County Schools’ director for operations, said that using federal stimulus funds to purchase six new buses will allow the district to set up a self-sustaining fund for future bus purchases in the meantime. That account will be funded by the per-mile fee that teams and clubs pay to use the buses, and will eventually be able to support the purchase of one new activity bus each year.
Projects that qualify for the coronavirus relief funding generally deal with either improving air quality and sanitation or supporting outdoor activities. With those projects now covered with this unexpected funding source, board members are already looking to determine how funds previously allocated to those projects might be used now that they’re available.
“What I’d like to see for the next meeting, however you decide to present it, it can be item by item, is a supplant,” said David Hensley. “I would like things clearly indicated if it’s displacing existing funding and then be prepared to speak about what the plan is to do with that existing funding.”
Beyond what the proposed plan would fund, and the $2.7 million remaining on the board’s existing priority list, are the renovations of six elementary school gymnasiums. The gyms at Carthage, Cameron, Highfalls, Sandhills Farm Life, Westmoore and Vass-Lakeview are all scheduled for renovation over the next eight years at about $2 million each.
“One of my problems, well I’ve got several problems with the whole thing, is that we’re doing a lot of little things but we’re getting a big bunch of money which we will never see again, and my hope is that we can do some big things that we could never do again,” said Levy. “You’ve got a big lump sum of money and it’s a shame to spread it around small amounts all over.”
Levy pointed out that those renovations all include air conditioning work that relief funds could cover, but Grimesey said there would be little point in upgrading the air conditioning considering those buildings’ current condition.
But he also said that with $5.7 million Moore County Schools should have available for capital projects within the next year, and the $9 million or so in premiums from the sale of bonds to fund the new Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst elementary schools, the funds to complete that $12.7 million in gymnasium renovations will be there.
Those bond premiums are under the control of the county commissioners, but remain tied to school capital projects.
“Far be it from me to get too far ahead of this board and too far ahead of the commissioners, but … you could take that savings that you’ve derived from this particular plan,” Grimesey said.
“Should the commissioners desire to sit down and talk about that, you have within your means right now the ability to get a lot of these individual projects at a lot of different schools that do fit the ESSER funding guidelines and still perhaps, in very short order, do all six of those gyms and both boards could work together on that.”