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One Year On, Schools Still Wait for CARES Act Funds

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March 25, 2021

By Brianna Staudt–

The recent passage of the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) and its funding for schools should bring a sigh of relief to school districts burdened with covid-related spending. But there’s a catch: districts are still waiting for most of the funds promised under last year’s CARES Act. On top of that, those CARES funds were negated last year, or “supplanted,” by reductions in state aid to districts.

New York State allocated $505,726 to the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns from New York’s $1.2 billion CARES Act Educational Stabilization Fund allocation last year— then, as it did with every district, zeroed out those funds via a “pandemic adjustment” in the 2020-21 budget and is paying the money out incrementally, starting with just over $100,000 of the approved CARES funding so far. However, as recently as Valentine’s Day, the district hadn’t received anything at all.

Meanwhile, pandemic costs mount as districts await funds. As of March 4, 2021, the Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow district had spent nearly $1.2 million on covid-related expenses. That number continues to grow.

The state allocated Dobbs Ferry Union Free School District (DFUFSD) $139,152 in CARES funding. However, according to DFUFSD Assistant Superintendent of Finance, Facilities and Operations Ron Clamser, their application for these funds is still under review and has not been approved. The district has not received any CARES funding to date. Clamser said he is not currently factoring CARES or ARP funds into his 2021-22 budget because he is “not certain to what extent they will materialize.”

The state paid Irvington public schools just under $14,000 of the nearly $69,000 allocated. Ardsley public schools have been paid and allocated similar amounts.

Technically, New York State has until May to award the CARES funds to the school districts, which is one year from when the state itself was awarded the funds by the federal government. New York State told the U.S. Department of Education in a report dated July 13, 2020, that it planned to award one of the two CARES Act funds (the Governor’s Emergency Educational Relief Fund, or GEER) to districts during the summer of 2020 but no later than the one-year deadline.

According to New York State Education Department (NYSED) officials, the department is processing initial CARES funds payments (20 percent of the total award amounts) on a daily basis as they receive approved grant applications. A grant award notice that accompanies the initial payment communicates the total grant award amount to the districts.

In a statement, Education Department spokesperson Emily DeSantis said, “We will not know the final amount each school district will receive until the Enacted Budget for 2021-22 is finalized. We urge the Executive and the Legislature to use these federal funds to supplement — and not supplant — state aid and other sources of state funded support to school districts. Schools need these additional funds to pay for costs incurred during the pandemic, to prevent learning loss and to provide social and emotional supports for New York’s students. In addition, NYSED needs to retain the state educational agency (SEA) reserve to implement these funds with fidelity, provide technical assistance to school districts and implement the state level activities Congress intended to address the impact of the pandemic on our children. It is imperative that these funds are used for their intended purposes.”

When it comes to American Rescue Plan funding, the stakes are significantly higher for many districts. As previously reported (see: https://thehudsonindependent.com/rivertowns-school-districts-cash-in-on-federal-rescue-plan-funds/), The Public Schools of the Tarrytowns could receive a grant allocation as high as $2.78 million from the ARP. Yet it is unclear when districts can apply for these funds. The Tarrytowns’ Board of Education adopts their proposed 2021-22 budget on April 20.

Importantly, school districts must develop a balanced budget for the public to vote on in May. It cannot present a budget with a deficit. The Tarrytowns’ initial budget gap is just over $1.8 million. “Without a commitment from the state, it’s really tough. (ARP funding is) not part of our current numbers,” explained the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Business Joy Myke.

The working budget proposal for the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns 2021-22 school year cuts almost 14 staff, including teachers, teacher’s assistants and a staff developer. It also eliminates 17 athletic department stipends and leaves two positions unfilled after retirements.

The 2021-22 executive budget proposal preliminary “school aid run,” which provides budget data to the public, contains “local district funding adjustments” that seem to be equal to the covid-19 stimulus districts are receiving. In other words, it appears as if the state is again planning to use the latest rounds of federal funding to supplant, instead of supplement, the aid it provides to school districts.

“I think people need to look at federal funding with a long-range viewpoint,” said Myke. “If we get it one year, and we can’t replicate it in the following year, it really has a limited benefit for us, so from a state perspective, federal funding should not supplant state funding…at some point, you get to a cliff, and you won’t be able to continue your programs if it’s based on funding that’s going to go away in a year.”

Both Myke and Clamser hope for clarification on what aid to expect from the state on or around April 1, when the state budget is due. “We are working as a cabinet team on identifying our priorities and what we might restore if we have additional revenue coming in,” said Myke.

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