School budget

As many Monadnock Region residents prepare to vote on annual school district budgets this week, local superintendents say they are still waiting on final state guidance for when and how they can spend the latest federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Without that information, districts could not factor this funding into their 2021-22 budget proposals, Monadnock Regional School District Superintendent Lisa Witte said.

“Federal grants have a lot of contingencies,” she said. “And we don’t have any clarity on what all of those are at this point because nothing’s been provided to us.”

Area school districts are slated to receive roughly $11.2 million through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which then-President Donald Trump signed into law on Dec. 27 and which provides a total of $156 million for public schools statewide, the N.H. Department of Education announced Jan. 29.

On the same day, the department sent superintendents some general information on those funds, including a limited list of eligible uses for the money. And while districts know approximately how much money they’ll be eligible to receive, the state has yet to provide the final guidance that allows districts to apply for these funds, ConVal School District Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said.

“Many of us know what the typical guidance is, but until we get the final guidance from the state … we don’t even have the capacity to fill out the application for the grant,” she said. “... Without that guidance, we really can’t move forward.”

In the meantime, though, schools did need to move ahead with budget planning, said Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29.

“Our budget processes still need to go forward,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘Hey, look, let’s put it on hold until we find out how we can use [the new federal funds].’ ”

Tyler Gouveia, a spokesman for the state education department, said Monday that districts should begin to be able to access these funds in the coming weeks, though he did not provide a specific timeline. Gouveia added that the department needs to make programming changes to its online grant-management system, which districts use to apply for federal funds, to accommodate the new grants.

“Once programing work is complete, we will be able to make the allocations available to the schools,” he said in an email. In the meantime, Gouveia said districts have the estimates of how much they’ll receive, and the list of allowable uses, to help them plan for how to spend the relief funding.

Once districts are able to apply for these federal dollars, though, they won’t see immediate infusions of cash, Witte said.

“The [federal] funds, both the first round [last spring] and this round, we don’t write the application and they hand us a check,” she said. “That’s not how it works.”

Instead, school officials go into the grant-management system and apply for available funds for specific activities, such as purchasing equipment or adding staff. The applications include justifications for these activities and how much they will cost.

“We have to do a lot of work in the background to have each and every activity we want to do approved, whether the activity is providing additional Chromebooks, whether it’s hiring an additional nurse,” Witte said. “That all has to be submitted and approved individually, and then once it’s approved, we can start submitting monthly reports, and we receive reimbursements from the grant for each report period.”

This latest round of federal grants will follow that same process, Witte added, but districts “just don’t know what all of the restrictions and allowances — what we can do and what we can’t do — we don’t have any definitive information on that yet.”

The new round of COVID-19 relief funding comes as schools are facing a drop in state education funding due to the expiration of a one-time increase that was part of the state’s biennial budget in 2019. Districts are also dealing with declines in enrollment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which affect the amount of state funding districts receive since New Hampshire provides baseline education aid tied to enrollment.

With the new federal relief grants, though, districts do know that they will have more time to spend the money. Unlike some previous federal COVID-19 relief funding for schools that had short-term deadlines for districts to spend the money, the new grants will be available through September 2023, according to the state education department.

“This one gives us a little bit more flexibility,” Malay said. “So we’re not facing a time crunch, and we can be more mindful of what we’re putting that money toward.”

In addition to more time, districts are also receiving more money as part of the new round of federal funding. For instance, the Keene School District is slated to receive nearly $2.5 million, compared to the roughly $1.1 million the district got in federal coronavirus funding last year. The district’s current operating budget is $69.2 million.

The Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, and has an operating budget of $33.3 million this year — is expected to receive $1.8 million in new federal grants, up from the approximately $740,000 total it got in two previous rounds of funding last year. And the ConVal district — which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — is scheduled to get about $1.5 million, compared to the $1.1 million it received last year. ConVal’s current operating budget is $50.6 million.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.