ConVal has spent $3 million in costs directly related to reopening school during the COVID-19 pandemic and is now turning to its nine constituent towns for help after the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that schools can’t use emergency funds from the agency.
“… the education of children is not an immediate action necessary to protect public health, life, and safety,” the agency wrote to state officials earlier this month, in a reversal of its previous stance. The district got the news at 4 p.m. on a Friday, ConVal Business Administrator Lori Schmidt said, at which point the state encouraged districts to seek reimbursement through the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery funds disbursed to their communities.
Currently, ConVal is looking at paying for $2.3 million of the reopening costs through the general fund and trust funds, Schmidt said. CARES Act funds are still an option, she said, and Gov. Chris Sununu may have control over some additional funds that could go to municipalities and districts. “We are in constant communication with the state, letting them know the monies that are available to the school district don’t even come close,” she said.
Schmidt said she’d be writing to the district’s nine constituent towns, “and basically ask, ‘Whatever you could do to help us, we would appreciate it’.”
“That is our recourse right now,” she said.
It’s unlikely any town would still have GOFERR funds since they applied for specific pandemic-related costs and had seven months to spend them, Schmidt said. That’s the case in Hancock, Jonathan Coyne said on Friday, since all the town’s GOFERR funds had to be spent by Sept. 15, besides funds reserved for election-related costs. Hancock had not yet received a request for funds from ConVal, Coyne said.
Peterborough could potentially apply for more GOFERR funds to support the school before the final deadline of Oct. 31, Deputy Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said, but the town was still waiting to find out what the state will cover from the costs already submitted for reimbursement. The Dublin selectboard was waiting to receive ConVal’s request in writing after the district appealed to towns at last Thursday’s Selectmen’s Advisory Committee meeting and would deliberate requests for funds at that point, Town Administrator Kate Fuller said.
It’s too soon to tell whether the reopening costs will affect the tax rate, or if they’ll put the school budget in deficit, or even to say whether towns would receive a return of funds left over from last year that they could apply to the coming year, Schmidt said, although the conservative approach would be not to anticipate a return.
“Historically, we’ve been working on being fiscally responsible and tightening up our budget, trying to build a budget that don’t have these surprise large returns back to the town,” she said.
Towns aren’t supposed to count on returns from the unallocated fund balance, MacStay said, and Peterborough is mostly focusing on how the pandemic is affecting the town, rather than the school, tax rate. However, the unallocated fund balance can determine whether a smaller municipality has chronic cash-flow issues throughout the year, Greenfield Town Administrator Aaron Patt said, and that as of July 13, ConVal anticipated $850,000 in its unallocated fund balance.
“If we’re not going to get $800,000 back, that’s obviously going to have an impact on us,” Coyne said of towns’ upcoming payments to the school.
Some middle- and high-school students who elected for in-person classes are still learning remotely due to ongoing trouble with permits for tents over 400 square feet to be used for outdoor learning, according to a news release from ConVal on Friday. ConVal claims the tent company was responsible for providing all the engineering documentation required for the large tents and is now requesting a refund of $183,690 for the tents rendered unusable due to missing paperwork. The district also “will be withholding additional money initially owed to the vendor pending the resolution of permitting issues.”
The school budget is currently frozen, which means that while emergency purchases are still going through, all routine purchases, such as school supplies, subscriptions and membership fees, are now going before the school board. Usually they would just go through Schmidt and a couple of board members, she said.
“We’re being very careful with the funds and deferring capital improvements and purchases,” she said.
The reopening costs fall into three major categories: One million dollars went to new staffing necessitated by the school’s COVID-19 operating procedures. About $800,000 went to safety-related expenses, and another $800,000 went to contracted services, which includes the district’s $480,000 tent contract, Schmidt said. Expenses include sanitization and personal protective equipment.
In-person classes are scheduled to resume for South Meadow School 7th and 8th graders on Oct. 5, and for all high schoolers on Oct. 13. The high schoolers are scheduled to attend in cohorts that alternate in-person and remote instruction week by week.