COVID funding to mostly benefit Putnam Schools facility improvements, upgrades

By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ

COOKEVILLE – When the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act 2021 was signed into law earlier this month, it provided funding for a wide range of COVID relief measures, but one of the largest impacts was the infusion of federal funding into local education systems nationwide. The Putnam County School System (PCSSTN) is set to receive almost $21 million from this round of COVID relief and has already been allocated $2.3 million from the CARES Act and $9.2 million from the CRRSA Act, totaling an amount equal to over a third of the system’s annual budget. The best part is it’s free money.

The best part? It’s funding that does not require local matching funds from a state or county entity. The catch? The funding is a one-time shot in the arm for school systems, and it can NOT be used for recurring expenses, such as salaries.  

“There is no match. It’s really unprecedented for us in the school system,” said PCSSTN Director of Schools Corby King. “We used that phrase (“unprecedented”) a lot all year with COVID, but for the federal government or anybody to be throwing money at education like this – the frustrating thing for me is that again it’s not in those recurring expenses. Education is people driven. Our budget, 80-85% of it, is people, salaries, wages, benefits and this money can’t be used for those.”

The program is called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). ESSER 1.0 was funded under the CARES Act on March 27, 2020. The $2.3 million that PCSSTN received for this round was primarily for opening schools according to King.

“So, we had to look at learning loss, filling gaps,” explained King. “What does it take to open schools in the fall? What do you need as far as PPE? What do you need to get your facilities ready? Remote learning was also a big focus for us in ESSER 1.0. If you have to go remote, what do you need to participate in remote learning?” 

Although PCSSTN was among the first in the nation to return to in-school learning this past fall, there were accommodations that had to be made for remote learning for those who preferred to learn in the safety of their own homes.

A lot of networking was necessary to enable those remote learners. A lot of wireless upgrades had to occur in the system to maintain that. This money will be used for that so that the schools don’t have to go to the county commission and ask for that money or take it from the school budget.

“There’s a lot of the programs like Zoom and Screencastify that teachers use regularly,” said King. “We are taking those out of these funds instead of our school budgets. We still have to be prepared for remote learning. We’ve had to use one remote learning day this year for a snow day. We sent devices home with students when they were predicting flooding. At any point from here on out we would look at a remote day.” 

For ESSER 2.0, PCSSTN has been allocated $9.2 million. King submitted an application earlier this month to the Tennessee Department of Education, the program administrator, detailing PCSSTN’s plan for using it and must await plan approval before proceeding.

There were two categories that the money could be used in. The money from this round had to be spent either in facilities – further improvements to make facilities COVID safe, socially distancing and airflow (primarily HVAC) — and targeting learning loss.

PCSSTN plans to spend around $3.2 million on upgraded HVAC units that can provide better air filtration and can turnover the air in a much quicker and more efficient manner, replacing the rooftop units and replacing the chiller at Cookeville High School.

Another $3.1 million is planned for facilities upgrades and targeting learning loss. 

“Because it’s one time money, we’re also hesitant to add positions,” said King. “We did in ESSER 1.0 and ESSER 2.0 include positions, mostly stipends, but we did add a few positions like an ESL coach and a math coach. We added those hoping that we could absorb them into the budget at the end when this money expired.” 

King hopes that the positions will show their value and benefit and justify the board keeping them after the initial funding runs out.

“$1.8 million will be used for employee stipends,” King added. “Being open this year and being in-person has required a lot of additional work from the teachers transitioning their traditional methods to online teaching both in-person and remote learners, and even the quarantine learners as they go in and out of school. It’s just required a lot of extra time. 

We weren’t able to do a raise this year, so we are looking at a one-time stipend to supplement that to be paid in May. Full-time employees who work more than five hours a day would receive a $1,000 stipend and a $500 stipend for part-time employees. This is for any employees who have been employed 90 days.”

ESSER 3.0 will bring PCSSTN the biggest pot of money, $20,676,390. ESSER 3.0 will again focus on facilities and learning loss. Guidelines for this funding aren’t finalized yet, but will again be one-time funds that are primarily for facilities.

PCSSTN is looking at options for spending the third round of funding. One possible option is centralizing the system’s CTE programs in a new facility. This has been discussed in school board work sessions in the past. King has identified a facility that would work for this and, if the county commission agrees, some of the ESSER 3.0 funding could be used to retrofit the building for this. 

With the biggest portion of this going into facilities, PCSSTN has the potential to do much of the maintenance work that has been needed across the school system and will have until September 2023 to do it.

“I feel we are being good stewards of the money,” added King. “We are being strategic in how we use them, making sure they do meet our strategic plan and meet our board priorities.”

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