GFPS expects $2.38 million in federal funds for COVID-19 response

The federal CARES Act includes funding for school districts and Montana is slated to received about $41.3 million of those funds.

Of that, about 90 percent will go to school districts based on the current Title I funding formula, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

OPI has estimated that the Great Falls Public Schools district will receive $1,883,414.90 for the elementary and middle schools and $499,037.63 for high schools for a total of $2.382 million.

GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore told The Electric in an April 15 interview that districts have broad latitude to use those funds, but within 12 set areas and it’s largely for costs incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures.

These funds have not yet been allocated to the state or school districts.

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Some of that money will also go to non-public schools within the district area and Moore said he’d already been contacted by the principals of the local Catholic schools to set up a meeting regarding the use of those funds.

Moore said the portion that will go to non-public schools through GFPS’ allocation is about $180,000.

March 24 COVID-19 updates: School closures, dine-in restrictions extended to April 10; Catholic schools closed through May 4; election updates; county landfill changes; changes to GFPD operations, city animal shelter; GF Clinic now accepting homemade masks

Moore said the district is asking OPI for more guidance on how the funding can be used, and working with the Congressional delegation and U.S. Department of Education for more information.

He said he expects more guidance some time next week from the federal and state entities on how the funds will be allocated and used.

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The other 10 percent of the CARES Act funds can be set aside by OPI for other needs, and according to OPI of those funds, each district is guaranteed at least $10,000 of those funds. Moore said it’s not clear if that’s in addition to the other funds slated for districts based on the Title 1 formula.

Moore said it’s also not clear if the CARES Act funds can only be used for Title 1 schools within the district.

“That will be a problem,” Moore said since some of the district’s schools are not Title 1, which is related to poverty levels among students.

The money must be used by September 2021, or district may be able to get extensions through January 2022, he said.

The money may not be used for regular, ongoing costs, such as salaries, Moore said.

He said the district is moving forward with the May ballot for the $1.75 operational levy request.

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He said the district’s ongoing costs aren’t going away and if anything, the district will likely have greater needs in the future as it returns from the COVID-19 situation.

Moore said there was some discussion of postponing the election, but ballots had already been printed and since there’s a trustee election, the district would have to pay another $46,000 to run a second election.

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Pushing the levy election into the fall would have caused other issues, according to Moore and Brian Patrick, GFPS operations manager, since the district sets it’s budget in August and needs to know how much money it has.

“We get it,” Moore said. “It’s not a good economic time to ask people to think about increasing their taxes.”

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If the levy is approved on May 5, property owners won’t see the increase until their November 2020 tax bill, Patrick said since it’s for the 2020-21 budget year. Those taxes will be paid by property owners at the end of November 2020 and the end of May 2021.

Moore said in an April 17 update that administrators are earmarking some of CARES Act dollars for remediation programming to make up for gaps in learning created by the COVID-19 closures. Moore said the district expects significant programs will be needed once students are back in classrooms to make up for those gaps created during the distance learning that while meeting the needs of the current situation, is not the best way for most students to learn.

A large chunk of the CARES Act funds will likely be used getting internet and devices to students who don’t currently have that access.

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Moore said initially they couldn’t get meetings with major internet providers, but eventually Casey Schreiner, a state legislator and husband of a school board member, got in touch with someone at the governor’s office who got in touch with someone at Spectrum and the company met with GFPS, Billings and Missoula administrators to discuss a plan to provide short-term internet to students during the school closures.

Internet companies were providing specials to students, but if they didn’t have devices to connect them too, it was futile and they weren’t requesting devices from the district if they didn’t have internet, Moore said.

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The district is currently working to identify its students without internet access and will share that with Spectrum to come up with a package that will provide that service to those students while schools are closed. Moore said the students will have to sign agreements about their responsibility for the equipment that must be returned at the end of the plan and also the expectations for the service.

Moore said the district would use the CARES Act funds to cover the cost of that internet service, which is currently unknown while they’re working with Spectrum on the details, but they should know more next week.

Moore said so far, the district has identified 300 students on the high school side without internet and they’re working on a similar list on the elementary and middle school side.

Moore said one area GFPS is planning to use the funds to focus on services for homeless students during the school closures.

“We don’t have the funds for that now, but we are still providing services,” he said, such as food deliveries and connecting them with resources.

Costs associated with sanitizing and cleaning GFPS facilities at a heightened level can also be covered with the CARES Act funding. Moore said that students aren’t in schools, but teachers still need to use their classrooms for some work; some facilities are housing childcare programs and need additional cleaning and early on, the district closed Meadowlark Elementary for a deep clean since a student there was potentially exposed to COVID-19, but did not test positive.

Food service costs have also increased as the district has provided more meals and there were some food waste costs initially when some fresh fruit and other items couldn’t be distributed quickly enough while the district was transitioning to remote learning essentially overnight after the governor’s directive in March.

Those food service programs may extend longer into the summer, Moore said, and “those costs are unknown right now.”

The district also had trainers working overtime helping teachers switch to online learning and those costs could be covered by the CARES Act funds, Moore said.

Moore said teachers and students have been doing their best to keep learning while schools are closed during unusual times, but they know it’s not the best learning situation for most students.

“The majority of kids need to be in classrooms with teachers,” he said. “We know there’s a huge impact.”

Moore expects that whenever students are back in classrooms, there will be gaps in their education and they’ll have to do remediation work, credit recovery and summer programs.

He said the assistant superintendents are working on plans for summer programs that they can provide once there’s more known about the health situation.

Moore said the district expects to offer summer programs and catchup type programs through the next school year and into summer 2021.