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Gov. Tom Wolf announced May 13 that Pennsylvania will receive a one-time grant of federal emergency funds totaling $523.8 million to help schools cope with costs associated with COVID-19.
But the disbursement by Harrisburg of money from the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t have local school administrators jumping for joy.
“Years ago, something like this happened, where they infused money into the districts,” Cheryl A. Potteiger, superintendent of Annville-Cleona School District, told LebTown. “It looked like a big lump of money they gave us, but then they cut that same money from the basic subsidy. And then they took that away [the following year].
“We’re not sure if this is going to be the same thing,” Potteiger said, noting Annville-Cleona stands to receive $161,000 through the fund. “But we didn’t put that into the budget because we don’t know how it’s going to work. If it’s extra money on top, we’ll utilize that … for things that we need like masks and sanitizers, temporal thermometers and classroom dividers. But right now, we’re not making any solid plans for that money.”
“We’ve been told that it’s not going to impact our funding for basic education, but enough of us went through this before … and are wary,” Julia Vicente, superintendent of ELCO School District, agreed.
ELCO, she said Tuesday, expects to receive $387,000 from the fund.
“Every superintendent is going to look at that very strategically,” Vicente said. “Budgeting is very tenuous right now. We need to be very strategic in how we place it, so it is the most effective.”
According to a statement from the governor’s office, schools may use money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund for “a wide range of purposes, including food service, professional training, technology purchases, sanitization and cleaning supplies, summer and after-school programs, and mental health supports.”
The money must be used by September 2022, the governor’s office said. The state Department of Education urges schools “to prioritize investments for vulnerable students and families, including those living in the deepest poverty, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care,” according to the release.
Schools can expect to start receiving funds “within the next several weeks,” the governor’s office said.
Arthur Abrom, superintendent of the Lebanon School District, said the city district has applied for $2.2 million through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
“The question that is unanswered at this point is if the state will provide the entire amount,” Abrom said in an email, “or keep some of the CARES money at the state level using it to backfill their state funding allocations to us.”
Bernie Kepler, superintendent of the Palmyra Area School District, said he expects the district to “receive roughly $253,000 from the ESSER funds.”
“At this time, we are finalizing how it will be utilized,” he said in an email. “We intend to utilize the funds on one-time costs as we do not want to help balance our budget on one-time funds.”
Gary Messinger, superintendent of the Northern Lebanon School District, said he expects the district to receive $279,000 from the fund.
“Everybody had a figure. I don’t think that’s been finalized … because there are some factors there to be considered in terms of what costs districts have had,” he said Monday. “I don’t think anybody will have difficulty coming up with numbers to demonstrate their costs.”
Unfortunately, he agreed, it’s possible the state will reduce its subsidy so the federal funds “don’t end up being an extra amount of money.”
“Maybe that won’t be the case this time,” he said. “I certainly hope not.”
He, like other local superintendents, said the money shouldn’t be used to balance the school budget because “it’s going to go away, it’s a one-time thing.”
Philip L. Domencic, superintendent of the Cornwall-Lebanon School District, agreed that school administrators should be cautious with the way they spend the one-time payment.
“We are supposed to receive $575,000,” he said Tuesday. “The challenge is this: While we are likely to receive those funds, we also receive money through other subsidies from the state. Will those funds decrease a proportionate amount?”
An increase in federal money means little if state support is reduced by the same figure, Domencic said.
“There is so much uncertainty over the state budget,” he said. “What’s the end result going to be?”
The pandemic has thrown school budgets into confusion, administrators agreed, because few costs went down even though students were no longer being taught in the classrooms. Some expenses went up, particularly in areas of technology to keep students and teachers connected, and some district revenues, such as real estate transfer taxes, have plummeted.
“This particular budget year is like no other,” Domencic said. “We can use projections from the last recession to make some educated guesses … but there are a lot of big unknowns for everybody right now.”
He, too, noted that local districts received federal stimulus money a decade or so ago that provided an immediate boost to local funding followed by an equal decrease on the state level in the next budget round.
“Having that experience makes a lot of school boards, superintendents and business administrators a little wary this year,” Domencic said. “And I don’t think the state knows what’s going to happen, either.”
By law, school districts in Pennsylvania must approve a final budget plan by June 30. Unfortunately, a few local superintendents noted, they might not know what the state is doing in time for a final vote.
“It’s going to be difficult to have some of these answers by then,” Domencic said. “That’s just the nature of the budget process.”
“We have to settle our budget by June 30. The state does not,” Potteiger agreed. “So we’re hoping we are at least level-funding everything.”
If Harrisburg cuts state funding by the same amount the districts receive from Washington, D.C., she said, “we’re OK, because we didn’t put it into the budget yet.”
Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.
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