The school district fielded some questions from residents this week as to how the second and third round of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds will be incorporated into the fiscal 2023 school budget.
Whitman resident John Galvin noted that the committee certified a new budget before Town Meeting last year in which $775,000 was taken out of the assessments from the towns, and asked how the schools were planning to spend the $2.3 million in anticipated ESSER III funding.
“From my understanding [the district] was going to take ESSER money to fund a special team of interventionists because everyone was coming back from remote learning,” Galvin said, asking if the $775,000 was coming out of ESSER money. He also said his understanding was ESSER funds were going to be used for the $775,000 again next year because the towns would be able to handle that since if was one-time money, and asked if that was still in the plan.
“You’re correct in both spots,” Szymaniak said. “I just don’t know if it’s ESSER II or ESSER III at this point.”
Galvin asked if the interventionists would continue their work into a third year, eating up a lot of the ESSER funds.
“What I was asking him was, because he [Szymaniak] had this big community survey on how they wanted to spend all this money [with ESSER II and III funds left],” Galvin said.
He said he wanted to confirm that while $775,000 last year, you said was coming out of ESSER III, Szymaniak also said he planned were going to use ESSER III this next year, and possibly a third year — which would eat up more than the $2.3 million anticipated.
“That’s what I wanted on the record,” Galvin said. “Using one-time money in an operating budget’s a bad thing.”
Szymaniak indicated that the interventionists were not a long-term program, he said.
Stressing his question came as a private citizen, Galvin said the School Committee on April 14 voted on a new assessment funding $775,000 from their own funds for the special group of educational interventionists, with Szymaniak indicating he was going to use ESSER III funds instead.
“When I presented the budget in February, we were taking some ESSER III money from that allotment,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak replied at the meeting. “We might not have to do that, because we still have ESSER II money, but in June we found out we had to jump through some more hoops than we had to do for ESSER I and ESSER II.”
There are some “wide-range things the district can look at” using ESSER III money, according to Szymaniak. “Potentially, the assessments to the towns don’t include the interventionists at this point.”
ESSER I for the district totaled $292,273 and expending all but about $100 for initial COVID response; ESSER II grants totaled $1,001,704, expending $592,066, leaving a balance of $996,411.
“That’s there right now because I’m still outstanding $1.1 million-something in CARES [Act funding],” Szymaniak said at the School Committee meeting Sept. 15. “We thought ESSER II might have been used to cover some of our CARES money. We put in a lot in CARES, so we didn’t have to dive into ESSER II.”
ESSER III was just coming out, without any parameters last year and $2.314 million has been awarded, but the district hasn’t applied for it. The grant is due on Oct. 4.
“So we were looking at CARES not covering some of our expenses and using ESSER II money,” Szymaniak said. “We didn’t use that yet and we’re feeling pretty sure – 98 percent – that we’re going to get all the CARES money, so we’re going to be able to use this ESSER II money in fiscal 2022 and ’23.”
One of the necessary components of the ESSER III grant application is a needs survey of what the community sees as the district’s needs, Szymaniak said.
The one-year grant includes extensions to a second and third year, with the total allotment having to be spent by Sept. 30, 2024. Symaniak said the district is still trying to find out if the money has to be actually spent by that date or if it can be encumbered for later spending by that date.
It can be used to benefit students and for building up-keep, but can’t be used for teacher, administration or staff raises. Improvements may also be made to after-school activities, help sessions for students or even summer programs, but it can’t be used for a program like foreign language curriculum in the middle schools that would then have to be supported by the budget. The funds can be used for air-conditioning and, potentially, for playgrounds if COVID was in some way a concern that needed to be addressed.
“It has to be for programs or for people to put in that program,” he said. “These are one-time monies. We have to be very careful how we structure our finances going forward.”
Not having to dig into all of ESSER II and ESSER III, is a positive, “but it doesn’t necessarily take away the responsibilities of the two towns to fund our budget,” he said.
An update on the overall budget outlook and how ESSER funds might be used this year will be outlined at the October meeting, Szymaniak said.
“We’ll be clear and transparent about how those funds are being expended,” he said. “Our budget was approved at Town Meeting and then we got a notice from the fed saying, ‘These are some of the stipulations around ESSER III’ and a lot of us said that would be great to tell us back in May before Town Meeting.”
Szymaniak said the district is also waiting for CARES reimbursements from Plymouth County for things done last year.