A public school district plan for spending more than $80 million in federal COVID-relief funding has generated little response from the community.
Early this week, Pitt County Schools had received about two dozen comments on its proposed use of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, Public Information Officer Jennifer Johnson said Monday.
The district, which has a student population of about 23,000, is due to receive nearly $100 million in ESSER funding through 2024. The deadline for public comment on the plan is 5 p.m. Thursday.
The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund is providing nearly $122 billion to states in response to the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on schools. Of that amount, North Carolina is receiving $3.6 billion to address students’ needs.
Pitt County Schools plans to use about half of the $30 million in initial funding to address students’ learning loss due to the pandemic. Additional planned ESSER II expenditures include $2.8 million for educational technology, $2.6 million to improve air quality and $2.1 to address needs of special populations, including exceptional children.
The district plans to spend $415,000 of the initial funding, which expires in September 2023, for mental health services. Another $3.7 million is planned for other eligible activities Every Student Succeeds Act. Of that, $527,338 was listed for use in hiring equity co-directors to provide professional development for the district on equity and culturally responsive teaching strategies.
Johnson said some responses to the spending plan questioned the use of COVID-relief funding for this purpose.
There has been mixed reaction on social media.
“Including the funding for ongoing professional development trainings and resources provided by equity co-directors is a great step for Pitt County!” one woman commented on Parent for Public Schools of Pitt County’s Facebook page.
Another woman questioned the expenditure in a separate post.
“Almost $600,000 dollars on 2 trainers for equity and culturally responsive teaching strategies,” she wrote. “We don’t have enough money for remediation teachers in schools. We have to fight for every teacher position we get but we have enough money to teach teachers what they respectfully know.”
Johnson said the list of allowable uses for the funding is limited to about a dozen total categories.
“Those were our choices,” she said. “It’s federal money. There’s accountability and spending limits around it.”
Pitt County Schools plans to use no funding for several of the allowed categories, including “improve preparedness and response,” “long-term closure activities” and “supplies to sanitize and clean.”
The district’s plan for the use of $54 million in funding approved under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 budgets $825,000 for cleaning and sanitizing supplies, including contracting with a cleaning service to sanitize 25 school sites after summer learning programs end next week.
Of the ESSER III funds, which expire in September 2024, the district plans to spend nearly $12 million for summer learning and about $6 million to improve air quality, including upgrading HVAC systems and replacing carpeting with tile flooring. The plan includes an additional $3.725 million for educational technology and $2.1 million for mental health services.
Pitt County Schools Chief Finance Officer Debra Baggett said the district is required to use the federal money to address COVID-19.
“To reduce the spread of COVID, to prevent the spread of COVID or in response to COVID, those are the three key identifiers,” she said. “We can’t just go take it and do anything we want.”
Other planned expenditures under the latest round of federal grant funding include: $2 million to add outdoor classroom spaces and $3.6 million to serve special populations, including low-income students, learners with disabilities, English learners, minorities and students who are homeless or are in foster care.
About $24 million is planned for other ESSA eligible activities, including funding for budget analyst and project manager positions, as well as the purchase of school nutrition vans and activity buses.
About $11 million of the federal dollars Pitt County Schools is due to receive has not been budgeted.
“They knew that as things progress over the next two or three years, even by the end of this year, we might know of some additional needs,” Baggett said. “The document can change. We can amend it.”
ESSER funding was included in the $426 million Pitt County Schools budget that the Board of Education approved in June.
Johnson said plans for spending federal dollars were posted on the PCS website a month ago, but some parents have criticized the district for a lack of transparency.
Cristina Jones, whose son attends Pitt County Schools, said the request for public comments should have been posted on social media or parents should have received phone calls or emails to notify them of the opportunity.
“PCS needs to be more transparent with parents, teachers, tax payers, etc. when it comes to how PCS is choosing to use funds,” she said, adding that fewer people consult the district website in the summer.
Johnson said that placing the notice on the school’s website met the federal requirements regarding public comment.
“We’ve believe that we’ve been extremely transparent about it,” she said, adding that the official requirement for public comment was designed to address schools where students were preparing to return to in-person instruction.
“For Pitt County Schools, we have already returned to in-person classes,” Johnson said. “So actually, so be even more transparent, we contacted the state and asked about it. That’s why we posted our plan.”
Plans are available for review at Pitt County Schools’ website, pitt.k12.nc.us. On the main page, under featured stories, select “PCS Reopening Plan, ESSER funds, Public Comment.”