Late last week, New Hampshire school districts learned that federal monies they were previously relying on are no longer available to cover costs associated with their response to COVID-19.
On Sept. 11 the state was informed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that they will not be covering reimbursements for facemasks to be used by teachers, staff and students among other supplies. Additional supplies not covered include any extra desks or chairs, cleaning supplies and the purchase and installments of physical barriers, such as Plexiglas.
Many school districts in the state had intentions of seeking reimbursement from FEMA for these additional costs, including the Salem School District which was seeking to have a large amount of money reimbursed.
Assistant Superintendent for Business Operations Deborah Payne said that the district was looking to have FEMA reimburse them for about $500,000. She explained that in early summer the district had put in two projects, and would have filed a third.
Those projects she referenced include all types of PPE for the district and acrylic shields for desks – all the equipment the district would not have needed if not for the Covid-19 pandemic.
As far as what the district will be doing now to cover these costs, Payne said the district is working with the school board to discuss that.
“We’ll probably be discussing that at Tuesday night’s board meeting,” Payne said.
Payne also anticipates that there will probably be requests by many districts to the Department of Education (DOE) for additional funding support.
According to a letter sent to education officials Friday, “Both District and Chartered Public Schools received an allocation from the NHDOE based on their ESEA Title 1 allocation, referred to as CARES-ESSER grants. The State distributed $33.9 million directly to schools. These funds have a flexible use to address expenses incurred due to COVID. To date, much of these funds are unallocated by schools and remain available to cover expenses districts had planned to submit to FEMA.”
During a briefing on COVID-19 Thursday, Governor Sununu said there is still a lot of opportunity for many of the districts to apply for and receive some of those reimbursement funds.
In addition to those funds, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFFER) has also made $32 million available to cities and towns across the state.
School districts previously planning on seeking FEMA reimbursement can work with their municipal partners to request reimbursement for these district expenses from GOFERR.
“Even though FEMA has decided not to step up and provide some of that support on the school level there is still a lot of financial opportunity there and as we’ve always said, we’re going to be there for these kids, we’re going to be there for the cities and towns for these COVID-related expenses,” Sununu said.
Manchester is one municipality in the state seeking a reimbursement request to GOFERR. In a letter sent to GOFERR dated Sept. 15 from Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig [see full letter below], she notes that this is the city’s third reimbursement request, which totals over $20 million. She also cites in her letter how the remaining GOFERR funds available to the city were roughly $1.32 million prior to Tuesday’s submission.
“With this third submission, we’re expecting to exhaust what remains of our GOFERR fund allocation, leaving roughly $19 million with no means to be reimbursed,” Craig wrote.
For Craig, notification to school districts in mid-September that these expenses are not covered by FEMA – after schools are already open and these purchases have been made –really was a shock and is extremely disappointing.
“It means that right now the school district is left with over $2.2 million in expenses that they expected FEMA to reimburse for, so now the district is in a place where they need to cover those expenses,” Craig said.
In her letter she states, “I am respectfully requesting the GOFERR Advisory Board allocate at least $5.5 million to the Manchester School District and consider funding other public school districts that have demonstrated need to help alleviate the unanticipated financial burden COVID-19 has caused.”
The pandemic was not present during the time budgets were put together, so there are a lot of unanticipated financial costs and burdens as a result that the district and city need help with.
The Manchester School District did receive $5.8 million in CARES Act funding, but their estimated cost for COVID-related expenditures for the school district is nearly double that figure, coming in at about $11.3 million.
“They more than exceed what we got in CARES funding,” Craig said. “If FEMA won’t reimburse for those, we’re going to have to take the money for PPE and other things out of the CARES funding.”
This news regarding FEMA walking back its reimbursements came as a disappointment to Franklin Superintendent Daniel LeGallo as well, who said the Franklin School District was absolutely intending to utilize this reimbursement and were actively working on doing so.
“We were looking to go that route, we were actively working on that grant possibility,” LeGallo said. We had made contact with them and had been working with them up until Friday when that was announced.”
Now that this potential stream of funding is not available to the district, LeGallo said the district will still be using their CARES Act funding that they have and will have to leverage district funds as well. LeGallo said the district would have been looking to go after $50,000 in FEMA reimbursements.
In the state’s north country, the Berlin School District was not planning on seeking any reimbursement from FEMA for PPE at this point, but did inquire about help covering costs with a separate expense.
“We had reached out to FEMA though to help cover expenses with HVAC corrections that need to be made,” Superintendent Julie King said. “I don’t know if this is going to impact that or not. That’s our biggest concern right now.”
On Thursday afternoon, she did not have a hard number for the cost of these corrections, noting an assessment had been done. King also cited how some work is being done to complete the easy fixes, with a meeting set for Tuesday to hear about the large fixes. She is hoping to get a cost for what it takes to correct the big malfunctions then.
In the meantime, she is unsure if FEMA is an option for covering these HVAC costs, citing how the email she received about the situation spoke about PPE. However, she does have a couple plans in mind to cover these costs.
“We have some capital improvement money that was going to be designated to replace a fire panel, so I would instead ask city council for permission to instead use them for the HVAC system,” King said. “That would be one plan. Another would have to be to borrow funds for any fixes that need to be made. It depends on the cost really.”
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