Baldwin County Schools expect to receive at least $32 million from COVID-19 relief programs delivered by federal relief funds approved in 2020 and 2021.
The money is tied to a series of rules and guidelines set by federal and state officials as to how and where it can be spent. That process can take months, meaning money earmarked for schools across the nation in the American Rescue Plan Act passed in January will not reach classrooms until much later into 2021. Local officials do not know yet how much they will receive from that legislation.
In total, K-12 schools in Alabama expects to receive $3.2 billion from the three federal relief acts approved by Congress.
John C. Wilson, CPA, chief school financial officer of Baldwin County Public Schools, said his staff is currently working through an 18-page application to receive the second round of assistance allocated in the CARES Act passed in December 2020.
“The red tape associated with this funding source will make your head spin,” he said.
So far, the school system has received the majority of funds allotted to the county in the first round of CARE legislation called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
Baldwin County received $5.1 million. Of that amount $187,000 went to private schools within the county, $2 million was used to purchase Chromebooks, and $2.5 million was used for educational software as well as classroom materials and supplies.
ESSER Funds are allocated to each state in the same proportion as their Title I grants, meaning the money is based on the number of students who receive free or reduced lunches. A student will meet eligibility for free and/or reduced meals if the family of the child’s income is between 130 and 185 percent of the US federal poverty threshold. The more free and reduced lunches served in the school system, the more money the system is eligible for under the federal Covid relief acts.
In Baldwin County, currently 47 % of the system’s nearly 30,000 students receive free or reduced lunches. For comparison purposes Montgomery County with a similar size enrollment has free and reduced numbers of just under 60% and received an allocation of $12 million for ESSER I and $58 million for ESSER II.
Across the bay, Mobile County with an enrollment of approximately 51,000 students received an allocation of $23 million for ESSER I and $101 million for ESSER II.
Districts have the flexibility to use the ESSER funds on any "activity authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” including assessments, instructional materials, software, hardware, professional development, connectivity, and summer-school activities.
Another $1.8 million was given to Baldwin County through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER). That money will cover the operational expenses of the Summer Literacy Camp to be offered this summer in 16 Baldwin County Elementary Schools.
Finally, Baldwin County received another $5.5 million from the State of Alabama Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). That money was divided into two buckets of money, one to cover technology and remote learning needs and the second for health and wellness-related purchases.
The first allotment, $3.2 million, was used for IT purchases including: 1,260 Chromebooks, 600 computers for teachers, a two-year contract with Renaissance learning, virtual science lab software and computer security and data storage agreements.
The second disbursement of CRF Funds, $2.3 million, was spent on health-related supplies such as $353,000 worth of hand sanitizer and $29,000 worth of thermometers. That money was also used to reimburse the school board for $1.2 million in nursing salaries. The state provides funding for 14 of 60 total RNs throughout the county. The board locally funds the additional 46 positions, so the CRF Funds helped to cover some of the first semester salary expenses.
Money from all the programs is distributed in a reimbursement format, meaning the local school boards pay for the items and then submits receipts for reimbursement. The arrangement leaves less financially fluid school systems in a bind.
“If you look at very rural, financially challenged, smaller school districts they might get $6 - $7 million, which is probably a huge percentage of their total annual budget,” Wilson said. “The question that does have to follow is what kind of challenge does that bring to the system since this is a reimbursement type schedule?”
Simply put, some systems may not be able to front the money for the projects that they will eventually be reimbursed for.
“Many of these systems are going to have to be very strategic in how they navigate the needs of their system as well as the cash flow obligation through this reimbursement structured program,” Wilson said.
He said Baldwin County has been able to cover all the expenses while administrators wait for the reimbursements to be processed.
“We are fortunate that we have the ability to cover those financial obligations as well as manage the administrative paperwork to ensure reimbursement occur in a timely manner,” he said.
Money from the second round of ESSER, passed in December, is expected to amount to $20.1 million. The ESSER II legislation allows the money to be used to help address students’ learning loss and to purchase specialized ventilation systems or other facility-related upgrades that will help mitigate exposure to the virus. Those plans are currently being developed and should be finalized by the end of April.
The amount of money from the second round of GEER funding is yet to be determined but Wilson said a majority of it will be distributed to qualified private schools in Baldwin County.
The final chunk of money, passed by Congress in January, is yet to be determined and likely won’t reach school systems until later in the fall.