The Moore County Board of Education, fresh off a meeting that ended in a shouting match, kicked off an eight-hour work session on Monday with unanimous approval of the district’s proposed $25 million COVID-19 relief spending plan.
Moore County Schools has a Friday deadline to submit its plans to spend that funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The money comes from two separate rounds of federal stimulus and must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.
Board members first reviewed the proposed plan in a special meeting last week, and approved it as presented. Of the total, $11.4 million will go to building repairs and improvements that address either improving air quality and sanitation or supporting outdoor activities.
The rest will go toward learning needs created by the pandemic: helping students who have fallen behind in remote learning, offsetting state funding shortfalls connected to enrollment decline in the last year, and continuing to fund last year’s expansion of individual student computers and internet hotspots to support remote instruction.
Board members took no other action during the daylong work session, but proceeded to discuss everything from controversial new state curriculum standards to the ongoing dispersals of old elementary school campuses without echoing the discordant finale of last week’s work session.
Steps Toward Reconciliation
That work session also went smoothly, until Vice-Chair Pam Thompson brought up a radio segment featuring board member Robert Levy in which he and board member David Hensley brought up Nazi propaganda within a discussion of school promotional videos. Board Chair Libby Carter did not allow Levy to respond at the time, and adjourned over his and Hensley’s protests.
None of the board members addressed that incident during Monday’s general comment period, instead focusing on the workmanlike meeting they’d just concluded. Levy offered the unanimous vote on Moore County Schools’ COVID-19 relief spending plan as evidence that the board can move forward from disputes.
“One of the things that I hope the public understands is, yes we do have a lot of differences of opinion on this board. But when it comes to the students, everyone on this board, I believe everyone to a person is trying to do the best for the students that they possibly can,” he said.
“I think we’ve done marvelous things today and I also want to thank our staff and Dr. Grimesey for doing some very, very arduous and meticulous work because it certainly took a lot of work to do what they did in these presentations.”
Board member Stacey Caldwell indicated that she did intend to address last week’s fireworks, but thought better of it after a “great, productive day.”
“I did have a speech written. I am going to hold off on that, due to I think we all kind of learned that lesson from last week,” she said. “I will say it’s time that we do work together to get things accomplished. We all bring something unique to the table, and I think working together we will be a powerful force.”
During Monday’s meeting board members aired opposing viewpoints on a number of topics without escalating into outright conflict. Carter, as chair, apologized for the manner of last Tuesday’s conclusion.
“I didn’t intend to be emotional about this, but whether it’s due to my poor leadership or to the fact that we’re not always willing to listen to one another, it's not the role models we need to be as we present ourselves to the children of Moore County,” she said.
“They deserve better. We can do better, and I ask your support, each one of you, as we go forward, to realize that we are the adults in this equation and we must work like the adults in this equation and we must continue to do our best for those young ones who are counting on us.”
Funding Allocated for Learning Recovery
Administrators reviewed their plans to spend the second and third rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding in summary at the start of Monday’s meeting, and addressed questions and suggestions board members submitted last Tuesday.
“I think this is an exceptional plan, I think a lot of work went into it, I think that it hits all the priorities and equitably distributes the money among the competing priorities,” said Hensley.
A significant portion of the funding will go toward reintroducing teacher assistants in second grade classrooms throughout the district and toward a two-month summer learning academy for students who test below grade level. Administrators plan to spend about $6.5 million on those initiatives over the next two school years.
Last week, board member Ed Dennison took issue with the plan’s lack of specific provisions for Moore County Schools’ three state-designated Restart schools: Aberdeen Elementary, Robbins Elementary and Southern Middle. Those schools qualify for that status due to consistently low student performance on state End-of-Grade tests.
On Tuesday Tim Locklair, the district’s chief officer for academic and student support services, said that the board could choose to redesignate $988,000 to hire 13 teachers’ assistants specifically for those Restart schools for two years. Or, Locklair said, board members could keep the additional staffing for Restart schools in mind in case the ESSER funds go further than expected.
“It’s also worth noting as we continue to work through this grant, there may be items that end up not costing as much as we estimate, and then we’re able to redistribute those funds to other items in the budget or potentially add something else in the budget as we move forward,” he said. “So down the line there may be an opportunity to do some additional things for low-performing and Restart schools, or move additional funding to capital.”
After Monday’s vote, Dennison said that he expects the additional support to yield appreciable growth in student test scores.
“I believe the utilization of these funds will show the difference additional funding makes on our students’ performance and hopefully indicate to the General Assembly that continued funding of these additional resources will benefit our student achievement, especially for our lower-performing schools in the near future,” Dennison said.
Administrators have said that the funding plan they submit to the state this week will not be iron-clad. The plan involves spending $2.4 million between the 2023 and 2024 school years to offset a loss in state funds tied to last year’s 400-student enrollment decline.
But those funds won’t be needed if the district recovers some or all of those students in the interim.
“You’ve got money in this budget that we’ve mentioned on several occasions that we have to have in the budget as of today, in this foundation budget that we’re going to send to the state,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “But there’s money in this budget that may not be needed and you will know that by this fall, even.”
Board member Robert Levy also suggested that the district hire another centralized staff member to help the families of students with learning disabilities secure additional services for their children — especially in the case of families who may not speak English.
“With all of this I think that we need to look at streamlining our IEP setups so that we can make them more user-friendly, especially for the people who don’t know how to navigate the system,” he said.
Carter pointed out that additional teacher assistants can be helpful when it comes to putting those individualized education plans into practice, and that she would support funding those positions if the board has the opportunity to do so.
“There’s not going to be disagreement on Pre-K or support for our special needs children, or any of these,” Grimesey said. “There’s no reason not to do these things except the general trade-off.”
Hensley also asked administrators to elaborate on how they plan to spend funding previously designated for programs and staff that the relief funding will now cover.
Grimesey said that much of the spending that falls into that category is a continuation of spending from last year’s initial round of pandemic relief. The district used that to purchase individual Chromebook computers and iPads in support of remote learning for elementary school students.
So the $1.3 million that the district had saved to update Chromebooks for middle and high school students will remain available, thanks to ESSER funding that will now be used to purchase those devices, for future use — potentially to upgrade elementary students’ machines down the road.
“The ESSER fund pushes the cliff out farther. It does not respond to the cliff that was created by the original investment last year that was literally required as a precondition of the money that we had available,” said Grimesey.
“All of us are going to have to eventually make up our minds as to what extent are we going to continue to make sure that every K-5 student has a digital device.”
Moore County Schools is also now spending $268,000 each year on service to 1,100 internet hotspots for students without reliable access at home.
“I assume that’s to support remote learners. Obviously I would expect that to taper off over time,” Hensley said. “Hopefully someone is keeping an eye on those.”
Locklair said that the amount of money budgeted to support those hotspots over the next three years may very well decrease as students return to in-person learning.
Administrators went further than they did last week in suggesting how the board may want to use local capital funding now freed up thanks to the federal relief money.
“It’s the first time in seven years that we’ve got $5.7 million and we don’t automatically have to pay a bill with it,” said Grimesey. “It’s there, we can pause, take our breath, talk to the commissioners and look at some of these other opportunities.”
That money was originally designated to a 37-item list of building priorities totaling $8.4 million, which the board agreed in February to fund over the next 18 months as the district sells off retired elementary school campuses and closes out the three new elementary school construction projects.
But more than half of that list fulfills the intent of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief package.
Levy suggested using some of the relief funds to air-condition six elementary school gymnasiums, since that expenditure would qualify.
But those gyms — at Cameron, Carthage, Highfalls, Sandhills Farm Life, Vass-Lakeview and Westmoore — are slated for full renovations as well as roof replacements in the coming years at a total of about $12.7 million.
Beyond the new HVAC systems, none of that work would fall within the rules attached to ESSER funds.
Grimesey suggested an alternative way to address those needs among the three possibilities presented on Tuesday for the $5.7 million balance of the district’s available capital funds.
Those options include setting aside the funding for now and using it to pick off items on the district’s list of building needs that have been put off due to insufficient funding. Each year the schools prioritize the $1.6 million, between the state lottery and county commissioners, among a list of building projects that usually exceeds that.
Or, it could be combined with $7 million or so of the remaining $8.6 million in bond premiums associated with the sale of the $103 million in general obligation bonds that built the new Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst elementary schools.
That funding remains under the county commissioners' control, but must be spent on school construction.
“One of the concepts for using that money could be that we sit down with the commissioners, talk about the bond premium money that is left over and we may be able to look at all of these gyms: not just the roofs, not just the HVAC, but the package that’s needed at each of those buildings,” Grimesey said.
The third potential use would cover the initial steps toward a full replacement of Carthage Elementary School.
Earlier this year, the Carthage Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in support of re-building the 70-year-old school. Carthage Elementary has been in service since the 1950s with few upgrades and is due for $7.5 million in repairs and renovations between now and 2031.
John Birath, the district’s director for operations, said on Monday that $5.7 million would likely cover the architectural and design costs and the establishment of a temporary school site, if the district were to build a new school on the same campus as it has done with Pinehurst Elementary.
But Moore County Schools would then be in the position of needing $30 million or more to actually build a new school.
Grimesey said that the district will continue to dedicate funds to Carthage Elementary’s extensive list of building repairs and upgrades while those discussions continue.
“There are certain things that are going to require high-cost remedy just to use it for another two to five years,” he said. “We’ve got to invest in that site; we can’t just let it languish while we’re deciding whether or not to replace it.”