BOE explores spending federal COVID funds on furniture, technology and staff

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“District-wide, there are big things we are trying to move forward with,” said Rome Superintendent of Schools Peter C. Blake during a special meeting of the Board of Education on Monday. The meeting was called to discuss, and hopefully achieve some agreement and approval, to get federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Relief (ESSER) funds flowing into the district’s schools where they can begin to have an impact for students and faculty.
 
What is ESSER?
ESSER is one in an alphabet soup of acronyms defining federal funding approved to address issues compelled by the COVID-19 epidemic, including issues specific to the nation’s schools and school communities; especially the students.
 
In March of 2020, Congress passed the Corona Virus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), earmarking $30.75 billion in aid to Americans. As part of CARES, $13.2 billion was carved out to address ESSER.
 
In December of 2020, when some CARES programs had expired and while the country was mired in a winter surge of the virus, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act was passed; a.k.a. CRSSA.
 
This law proposed an additional $53.4 billion for Elementary and Secondary School Relief; a.k.a. ESSER II, which was passed in January of 2021.
 
In March of 2021, a new president proposed, and Congress passed, a sweeping law to address the impact of a pandemic that had shut down or limited life, business and education in America for a full year. The American Rescue Plan Act – ARPA – devoted $1.9 trillion to efforts including vaccine rollout, a return to in-school learning and addressing the acute impact on the nation of a year-long battle with the collateral damage of the disease. ARPA ESSER was baked into ARPA allocating $122 billion of the ARP funds to America’s schools, staff and students.
 
Monday’s special meeting, according to Blake, was to focus on ARPA ESSER funding, which is, for many districts, a windfall that allows the consideration of big-ticket investments that year-on-year school-budget-balancing would normally knock low on the list.
 
Where what feels like windfall funding to-good-to-be true must, it does come with a catch – an expiration date.
 
Districts must submit binding plans for the purchases to be made with federal monies, which must meet specific guidelines, and do so with the knowledge that there is a time limit on the resource, which runs out by 2025.
 
The Rome district wrestles with the best use of funds from two federal sources; CRSSA funding allocated to the district in the amount of $6,288.054 million and ARPA ESSER funds earmarked for Rome in the amount of $15,267,141; for a total of $21,565,195 million.
 
Differences in approved use of the two funding sources include less restriction with the CRSSA funds and the ability to use those monies retroactively to pay expenses incurred to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and meet mandates to do so dating back to the 2019-20 school year.
 
CRSSA funds can be spent immediately and entirely as the discretion of the local district. Blake confirmed that CRSSA funding was already obligated, particularly where it could be applied retroactively, and that the focus of the board’s discussion was on the ARPA ESSER allocation of nearly $15.3 million.
 
ARPA ESSER challenges Rome with more rules. No more than 62.5% of the total approximately $15.3 million can spent in any one year, a reserve of at least 12.5% of the funds must be reserved for future years and 20% of monies must be used to address learning loss due to COVID. As with CRSSA districts are being advised not to use funds for recurring costs.
 
Blake and the Board zeroed in on three targets for the spending of federal COVID relief funds scheduled to flow into the district: New school furniture; two student support specialists, a role newly created to address COVID recovery, and investment in state-of-the-art classroom technology. 
 
Student Support
The district proposes dedicating some of the federal COVID relief funds to the creation of a new role, student support specialist, and to hiring two new staff members to fill it; one to be dedicated to Strough Middle School and the other to RFA.
 
The role, as defined, speaks directly to the spirit of the federal funds in addressing barriers preventing students from coming to school and infusing restorative practices into schools - “to help on that bandwagon a little better,” said Blake.
 
Blake also impressed upon the board that he believed a requirement for candidates is that they be certified counselors, where the defined roles of guidance counselors and school psychologists don’t adequately address the socio-emotional gap that this role would fill.
 
Blake spoke on the Rome district’s decision to spend some of the federal relief funds on staff – which are a recurring expense, because of the overwhelming response to queries of the community about what is most needed. He also reminded that, while some neighboring districts have done the same, they are warning candidates that when the funding goes away in 2025, their job goes away with it. Rome is assuming the unique risk of committing to the new roles, relying on attrition and retirements to make room to fund them beyond the expiration of the federal support.
 
Member, Lisa Herbowy expressed surprise at the amount of the allocation. Blake reminded that the budgeting inherently included benefits, where he estimate the cost of benefits for any role ranged from $20,000 to $35,000.
 
Herbowy pressed on from what appeared to be a diligence about the spending, asking if the staff who filled this new role would be replacing Parent Liaisons, who were provided by SafeSchools. Blake confirmed that the district no longer had an agreement with SafeSchools.
 
A conversation ensued about existing guidance counselors, school social workers and school psychologists.
Megerell wondered whether the funds could, instead, be earmarked to enhance the role, resources and salaries of current school counselors, who she pointed out, “already do so much of these things?”
 
Blake was unequivocal in his response, “there is no way our staff can take on additional work and do the work they already have.”
 
Ferretti directed the dialog back to Blake’s core points, that the new roles addressed acute needs of students and immediately so. 
 
“You are adding two counselors to schools that are overwhelmed,” said Ferretti, who then agreed that attrition would address their sustainability.
 
“That’s got to always be the plan,” said Blake, “minimizing the future through attrition.”
 
Davis turned to the Student Representative to the Board, RFA Senior, Alana Iacovissi, to ask how RFA students would know who to go to if they needed help? 
 
“No students really know of any help,” replied Iacovissi. “I don’t think most students know there is even a social worker in the school.”
 
When pressed for her ideas about how the district could work to change that, Iacovissi suggested planning an informal group that met with a school social worker once a week or even once a month during their lunch period, and announcing a reminder during morning announcements.
 
“If they don’t know the social worker,” said Iacovissi, “it would be hard to just go in and talk to them on an emotional level.”
 
Iacovissi added for the Board that she believed the Student Association space and activities in the school not having returned to normal was a specific example of the uncertainty still faced by students.
 
“Especially as SA president, an issue we’ve faced this year is not being able to do everything in our SA room,” said Iacovissi. 
 
Iacovissi shared the things that SA would normally be doing day to day, including distributing photos during lunch periods and selling tickets to student events; all things that – despite the building being open – the student leaders are not yet permitted to do. Even the room at RFA dedicated to SA, once a space open to all students, she shared is now restricted.
 
“SA has been an outlet for kids. It’s open. Kids feel like they can just come in. Kids that don’t even know what SA is always know there is a table outside the staff room,” said Iacovissi, who says – now – no such gathering is allowed.
 
“We want to do things that kids need to feel like it’s normal to be back in school,” concluded Iacovissi.
It was a tone-changing, sobering and sincere glimpse through the lens of one of their own into how the smallest things were having the biggest impact on the district students and the ways they rely on their school community.
 
After Blake shared with her that there were confidential issues in play that were being addressed, he assured her there was no barrier to SA selling tickets and such activities and he would work to address it.
 
Said Davis to the Student Representative on behalf of the Board, “We are there to support you guys in hoping to have as normal a year as possible and you to be their voice so we appreciate the time you contribute.”
 
Davis and Blake sorted out some confusion on moving forward with putting the two support specialists in place as soon as possible, where shifts in the nature of committee meetings seemed culprit.
 
“We will get that on agenda for Thursday,” promised Blake, referring to the Regular Meeting of the Board slated for Thursday, September 23.
 
New School Furniture
The Rome district, pre-COVID, had a plan to phase in the purchase of new school furniture – particularly in its elementary schools – to replace furniture, much of which was originally acquired in the 1980s. But, in part due to COVID, they had not been able to begin the process.
 
While the one-time investment in updating the district’s school furniture comports with guidance to not devote funds to recurring costs, and also inspires consensus among Blake, school faculty and staff, and the Board, issues around what, where, when, who and how sustained the discussion.
 
As for “what” furnishings would be purchased, Blake pointed out that the most distinct and least flexible fleet of furniture would be that purchased for Kindergarten classrooms, but that the upgrades would span across all grades and buildings. Blake assured that teachers had weighed in about their wish lists, what they wanted and why, resulting in the consideration of “flexible” furnishings, such as “fish-” and “triangle-” shaped individual desks – all on wheels – that could easily be pieced together like a puzzle to create tables, giving teachers the freedom to flow between those two formats in their classrooms.
 
Board Vice President, Tanya Davis, happened into the “who” when she queried Blake regarding Ross Faber, the consultant engaged by the district to advise regarding redistricting to address concerns regarding class sizes, and whether the firm should weigh in on furniture purchase as it would inform and be informed by that redistricting.
 
“My biggest concern regarding furniture is a chicken and egg thing,” said Davis. “We hired Ross Haber as a big part of our conversation. Are we going to end up purchasing what he recommends?”
 
Blake confirmed that the district’s agreement with LaBella Associates, the district architect, included design consultation such as this, and that the engagement of furniture vendor would involve an audit of current furniture and what could stay in use, as well as recommending furniture and design appropriate for elementary vs. middle school vs. high school classrooms.
 
Davis followed up to ask whether the furniture design and purchase would be based on a number or classrooms or a number of students? Blake replied to confirm that the investment would absolutely be based upon the number of students so that it could be adapted to redistricting proposals, which Davis has often appreciated as instruction-focused.
 
Member, Anna Megerell sought to confirm with Blake that the furniture the district would purchase was responsive to input from the classroom teachers?
 
“Part of the furniture audit is conversations with the teachers and things that will enhance the teacher experience,” responded Blake. “We want to make sure that what every teacher gets is consistent and, in order to build that consistency, we have to engage the teachers to be sure we get what they want.”
 
Board Clerk, Dr. Karen Fontana tapped into “how” when she tracked with the exchange regarding who would design and supply the furnishings to suggest an RFP? 
 
Member, Craig Ferretti segued to “when,” as he weighed in to support beginning the process immediately but to ask Blake whether it might be possible to spread it over two years, with Year 1 engaging a first phase of classrooms and feedback regarding the furniture so that adjustments could be made based upon that feedback for purchases made during Year 2. Blake confirmed that the district could support both scenarios.
 
Veteran Member, Paul Hagerty adventured into “where” in seeking further clarity around the role of Ross Haber and Associates, the redistricting consultant partnering on priorities including reducing class size.
“Once you decide on a configuration for a given school building, then you know what you need for furniture.” Asked Hagerty, “is that what you’re imagining?”
 
“If the Board gave the green-light to order furniture right now, you’d probably see it rolling in the door by March and April – maybe sooner for 6th grade furniture, which is a more standard stock,” said Blake. “But, certainly in terms of time, it is going to coordinate with Ross’s recommendations.”
 
In response to a follow-up concern about continuity of distribution of the new furniture across elementary school buildings to avoid any perception that one school was being prioritized over another, Blake clarified, “we would buy for 2nd grade classrooms, whether those classrooms are in six buildings or three buildings.”
“We’re talking about kids, not rooms,” concluded Blake.
 
Blake responded to a query from Board President John Nash about how much time an RFP would take to say about two to three months.
 
As the Board volleyed between the proposed RFP and two-year-phase-in, which seemed to curry much favor among more than a few Members, Blake pulled the focus back to time.
 
“The thing to keep in mind is that we have furniture from the 80s,” reminded Blake, “so new furniture is needed.” Where there was no disagreement on that point, “ASAP,” while not stated, was implicitly inferred.
 
New Classroom Technology
Blake has bantered with Board Members for months now over his strong endorsement of a long-term, major investment in state-of-the-art classroom technology that would be in place and prepared should any issue cause a short- or long-term return to remote learning, where new union rules would now require the expense of hiring dedicated remote faculty should that happen. Outside of the possibility of that acute need, the proposed technology – which allows teachers to livestream lessons in real time while at once recording them, so that they are available to students to access outside of school for review. It is a “hands-free” and “wireless” approach that teachers need only turn on or off as they wish. It would allow students unable to come to school for various reasons to access their lessons live, while supporting students who may need additional review to experience them again. Blake has sung these selling points to the Board, together with it conforming to the guidance that districts use the federal funding for one-time, non-recurring expenses.
 
Opponents to the investment as strongly reiterate that classroom teachers are asking for smaller scale, more immediate technology support, such as portable cameras that they could attach to computer monitors, dual monitors and tech that moves with teachers.
 
“I know you’ve brought the number way down on the tech (classroom audio tech),” said Davis to Blake. “It’s great in theory for someone from the district office or an architect – this is awesome; this will work – but what if it gets in the classroom and teachers say it doesn’t work?”
 
Davis went on to concede that she understood the need to purchase tangible things with the funding and the need to use-or-lose the money.
 
“But I want it to work for the people who it has to work for every day,” said Davis. “How do we engage them in the decision-making?”
 
Blake confirmed that the district has already confirmed teachers who have volunteered their classrooms to pilot the new technology. He added that some teachers have classrooms already equipped with the new furniture.
 
When Davis reminded him that teachers were requesting roving cameras that attach to monitors, Blake - after confirming that all the examples given were “aid-able” and that federal funds could not be used to purchase “aid-able” items - pointed out that the proposed technology serves as a roving camera – that doesn’t need to be attached to anything and that the feed “moves” with the teachers.
 
“This is not something coming from the district office,” said Blake. “It’s coming from the field.”

Ferretti circled the dialog back to his proposal of a two-year roll-out and suggested perhaps it could work for the classroom technology piece, as well?
 
“Until you try it with kids, you don’t know if it works,” said Ferretti. “That’s why my thought was to test-drive it for a year.”
 
Blake conceded that there was no reason the district could not take it for a “test drive,” and there was no disagreement from the Board.
 
Aug. 16 list unresolved issues
The classroom technology was a bridge between the focus of the meeting on ESSER funding and an outstanding list of unresolved issues carrying over from the Board’s Aug. 16 meeting – where the tech was on that list – and which list Davis wanted to run down.
 
Other issues discusses included status of school safety officers, where Blake confirmed that, despite recruiting efforts, there were simply no applicants. Third-party vendors are not an option because of union restraints.
Blake also pointed out that the perception of school violence was not consistent with reality, sharing good news that there hadn’t been any recent weapons incidents in either Strough or RFA.
 
The issue of after-school activities and, in particular, intervention and tutoring led to talk of the YMCA. Blake reminded that after-school indoor activities remained suspended due both to COVID precautions and transportation issues. But the YMCA did have plans to shortly resume programming, at which time the district plans to support and expand that.
 
Blake shared that he believed National Honor Society students were also providing peer tutoring at RFA. Iacovissi added that she believed NHS students had registered to do so, but she was unsure as to whether there hand been follow up. Blake also reminded that Hamilton College students were committed to a tutoring program at RFA and one of the school’s teachers was planning a small group group approach.
 
Regarding increasing after-school activities, Blake shared that they are teacher-driven, with the process being a teacher submitting a proposal to the building principal, who submits it for approval of any funding.
 
A request for outdoor furniture, such as picnic tables, for outdoor instruction. Blake said the basic request would be generated by principals to the district, but that larger furniture, such as picnic tables, would need to be approved through facilities due to grounds restrictions.
 
Regarding the possibility of creating a role for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator, Davis pointed out that the district was now in its fourth year of investing in an outside consultant to address and explore the need and that she was unclear as to the role of the Equity Task Force. What is the target outcome at this point? She asked Blake to please report back to the Board on it.
 
It was agreed that there was consensus around focusing on the need for more attention to students’ mental health needs.
 
And the conversation came full circle as Blake and the Board agreed to take action to move the Student Support Specialist roles forward and that the two-year roll out of a new furniture plan felt like the best approach.
 
With that, Nash announced that the Board would now retreat to executive session and not return to the open meeting. 

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