BOSC Finance and Facilities Committee looks at uses for federal funds

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Handwriting on the wall inside the Manchester School District offices. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – On Thursday, Manchester Board of School Committee’s (BOSC) Finance and Facilities Committee met for a special workshop to discuss how to allocate expected federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding.

The ESSER funds are split between three pieces of legislation: ESSER I funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, ESSER II funds from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act and ESSER III funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.

Each set of ESSER funds are intended to assist the Manchester School District (MSD) compensate for impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, although there has been some ambiguity over the boundaries of what fits within that criterion.

All ESSER I funds must be spent and programs or items using the money implemented by the end of September 2022, with ESSER II and ESSER III funds holding similar deadlines of the end of September 2023 and September 2024, respectively.

As of Thursday, $3,171,093.20 of the $6,697,800.84 in the ESSER I fund grants have already been used, with $512,424.51 set for June 30. While ESSER III will provide a projected $58,433,333.24, Thursday’s conversation primarily revolved around the $26,018,267.60 in the ESSER II pot.

MSD Chief Financial Officer Karen DeFrancis and MSD Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt advised the committee that $5.5 million of the ESSER II funding would be best used to avoid layoffs.

Some of the other proposed uses included professional development days for teachers, summer reading enrichment programs and construction costs at McLaughlin and Hillside Middle Schools.

Although DeFrancis and Goldhardt warned the committee that any new positions would have to be funded from other sources once the ESSER funding runs out, some temporary positions to assist with learning loss may be offered and aid formulas impacted by the pandemic, such as free and reduced lunch funding lost due to children not eating in school cafeterias, could potentially replace the one-time funds once they run out.

Goldhardt said that the best use of the money would be put toward the district’s teaching staff, although his team is investigating whether some of the money could be used to service bond repayments, which would free up money that would go toward the repayments for things like maintenance and new textbooks among others.

BOSC Member William Shea (Ward 7) agreed with Goldhardt’s assessment regarding the value of teachers, but also said that prudence would be needed as well as parental input.

“We don’t want to be like drunken sailors and throw money where it won’t have an impact,” he said.

The money would likely be split between funding for facilities and teaching costs, BOSC Member Jeremy Dobson (Ward 4) hopes additional data can be provided showing needs by age group as well as underserved communities.

He also hopes the money can be used for larger one-time expenses that can save MSD money while providing other educational opportunities, such as solar panels at schools.

The Committee is holding another special hearing on June 28, where it will likely assemble preliminary recommendations on how to use the ESSER II funds to the full BOSC.

Finance and Facilities Committee Chairwoman Karen Soule (Ward 3) took responsibility on the lack of action regarding new HVAC systems and other systems at several schools at the committee’s meeting on June 9 (see below), stating she wanted to wait and see the big picture.

Earlier in the week at a joint meeting of the BOSC and Board of Mayor and Aldermen, Goldhardt said he did not feel comfortable putting students in Green Acres Elementary without sprinkler replacements. On Thursday, he noted that HVAC upgrades at older schools that may soon be replaced or significantly renovated may not be cost-effective.