Schools deciding how to put federal aid to use

By The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana schools are slowly making a dent in more than $200 million of federal aid meant to help local districts manage financial hardships spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Indiana Department of Education received $215 million of the $13.5 billion that the federal government handed out to states under the federal CARES Act — the stimulus package to help mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 — specifically for K-12 schools. Since May, nearly $22 million of Indiana’s share has been issued out to school districts around the state, according to data provided by IDOE. As schools continue to apply for funds, state officials said millions more is expected to be given out in the coming months.

The financial help is intended for things like buying remote learning technology and equipment for sanitizing school buildings.

Money distribution among the state's induvial schools is based on the number of low-income students in each district, in the same manner as annual Title I grants. The funding formula is meant to give those districts an additional payment worth about three-quarters the federal money they usually receive each year to serve low-income children.

Gary Community Schools have already spent more than $1.2 million from the CARES Act on Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots for students, additional security services, infrastructure, daily building cleanings, personal protective equipment and staff training, said Paige McNulty, manager of the school corporation.

Roughly $3 million in remaining funds has been earmarked for social and emotional support for students, and virtual learning and tutoring programs, McNulty said.

Similar to other districts around the state, Fort Wayne Community Schools is spending money out-of-pocket now, with plans to use the CARES grant to reimburse the expenses later in the year, said Kathy Friend, chief financial officer. More than $5 million has been budgeted toward improving student technology. Another $2.7 million is expected to help pay for purchasing personal protective equipment and providing necessary health services to district students and staff.

“These funds are extremely helpful in covering costs that are not part of our normal budget,” Friend said. “Without (CARES Act funding), we would have had a negative cash impact at a time when we may be seeing revenue reductions in the future.”

Friend said the pandemic has brought extra costs in technology, nutrition services and staffing costs, too. Serving fewer meals will mean a reduction in the federal reimbursement the district receives, Friend said, which could have a long-term negative effect on the budget. Should schools be required to close again, the district is bracing for even more expenditures.

Still, of the $10.3 million allocated to Fort Wayne Community Schools, about $1.3 million is allocated to non-public schools. While the allocated money can be used for any schools within each district, public school districts must share Title I funds to provide “equitable services” in local private schools.

Mary Roberson, superintendent of Sheridan Community Schools, said her district opted to request funds early to help with cash flow of ongoing expenses related to COVID-19.

With many unexpected expenses — including for PPE and increased costs of disinfectant and hand sanitizer — Roberson said Sheridan schools has already spent several thousand dollars of the small district’s nearly $82,000 grant on plexiglass dividers for classrooms and cafeteria. Cost increases coupled with serving students who opted to attend schools virtually this fall has also meant more money needed to support online curriculum, teacher stipends and the hiring of more instructional assistants to manage online learning.

“We do not expect CARES funds to come close to meeting the entire need, but, we are still grateful for the help,” Roberson said.

State schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and other state leaders cautioned school leaders earlier this year that the federal aid isn’t as much as it seems. Compared with the $9.6 billion the state spends each year on schools, McCormick said that no one is going to “get rich” with the extra money.

“The money goes quickly and it’s not as much as we might think it is,” said Robin LeClaire, the state’s chief academic officer. “We want to spend this as wisely as possible to make sure we get the most out of this money.”

Leaders at Indianapolis Public Schools — set to receive $16.8 million for the district and private schools in the boundary, more than anywhere else in the state — have already spent $27 million on COVID-19 related expenses since March, when school buildings began to close. Starting the school year completely virtually, the school district spent more than $16 million on iPads and Chromebooks for 32,000 IPS students, and an additional 7,000 mobile WiFi hotspots.

IPS is waiting to apply for reimbursement of prior expenditures through CARES Act allocations and expects to have $11 million to 14 million available after non-public school distribution. The money will be “helpful,” said chief financial officer Weston Young, but it's not enough.

“It will make an impact," Young said. "But it will not be expected to cover the full cost of the IPS COVID-19 response.”

With pre-pandemic plans to make technology available to all students and staff in the Vigo County School Corporation by 2023, CARES Act dollars “were still a real blessing” in helping to accelerate the timeline, said Bill Riley, director of communications for the district. Using part of the district's $3.5 million in grant funding, all school staff and every student in grades 3-12 now have Chromebooks.

But even with the expanded virtual learning option, Riley said Vigo County schools still lost several hundred students to a virtual charter program, mounting concern over district finances during the pandemic.

"That's going to hurt our income — that's significant — even if we do get those students back later,” Riley said. “And we still need to have school running, too. We’re doing everything we can to make it a safe environment, but it’s a more expensive environment, certainly, than it was last year. There are still a lot of unknowns in our budget.”




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com