The Westbrook School Department has spent about $5.5 million of the $10 million it has received in federal pandemic relief funds since last spring on everything from temporary staffing to sanitizers and snowplows.

The funding was needed and the expenses were necessary, school department Accounting Manager Heather Neal said, but the department needs to start planning how to maintain the services and equipment it has purchased when the grant money runs out.

Complicating matters is that the department’s proposed $40.8 million budget for the 2021-2022 school year, up $1.3 million of this year’s budget, isn’t sitting well with some city officials and residents.

The proposed budget would add 72 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to the city tax rate, raising it from $17.86 to $18.58. The owner of a median-priced home in the city — $250,000 — would pay an additional $180 next year for a total of $3,716 if the budget was approved as initially proposed.

On Monday, Mayor Mike Foley said the school committee needs to cut $420,000 to lower the tax rate.

Neal said the proposed school budget for next year is a “bare bones” budget.

“What I see is a bare bones and nonexistent maintenance schedule and funding for these costs,” Neal said. “Facilities are inadequately funded.”

Neal said while grant “funds have helped to address” needs, planning needs to be done for 15 years down the road when some of these items need maintenance or be replaced again.

Some of the grant money was used to bring on temporary staff and faculty, such as substitute teachers, but Neal said that Superintendent Peter Lancia wants a number of those positions to eventually become permanent.

“The plan would be to figure out how to get them in general fund down the road slowly. That way we are not creating a huge fiscal cliff,” Neal said. 

Further, some improvements made through the grants, such as upgrades to the HVAC system, may not cost the district anything now but will require maintenance 10-15 years down the road, paid for through the schools’ general budget.

That’s where the residents’ concerns come in, Foley said.

“We’ve heard from constituents who find it difficult to understand the increase in taxes along with the substantial amount of federal funds,” Foley said.

The majority of the federal funds received so far have come from three grants. Each grant stipulated what it could be used for to support students’ return to school and to keep students in school full time, Neal said, and each came with short timeframe to spend the the money.

Coronavirus Relief Fund 

Two federal Coronavirus Relief Fund grants totaling $5,074,783, have nearly been entirely spent, Neal said. Those grants stipulated they could not be used to pay for anything in the general budget.

Nearly $2 million was spent on technology for remote and hybrid instruction, including hot spots, virtual devices for each student and faculty member, related software and maintenance on that equipment, she said.

If the schools choose to maintain all of the hot spots — tech that enables internet connections — it purchased with the grant money, maintenance will cost upwards of $50,000, Neal said.

According to IT Director Sam Rigby, the schools purchased about 1,043 laptops for students and staff, and 650 iPads, primarily for staff use both for in-person instruction and virtual lessons.

“Once we came back, it became relatively clear quickly that using 7- and 8-year-old devices won’t cut it for this year,” he said.

Each device will last around five years, Rigby said.

About $1 million was spent on repairs and facility upgrades like floor scrubbers and sprayers, with the Coronavirus Relief Fund grants also covering fencing for the Congin School playground and touchless key card locks for all schools.

The school department also spent $608,300 on HVAC upgrades and air purifiers, and another $1.5 million was for addressing “space and health” requirements, like furnishings for new classes, PPE, dividers for desks and non-edible supplies related to the pre-packaged lunches.

Three vans and buses each were purchased for about $340,000 to allow for more bus routes to provide social distancing. Five Bobcats, small loader and snowplow machines, were purchased for $77,000 each. The Bobcats, Neal said, will help create outdoor class space, but also will be able to help with regular maintenance saving the department contractor costs, she said.

About $400,000 of the Coronavirus Relief Fund grants went to pay substitute teachers and other temporary staff.

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund

So far only about a third of the first two installments of the emergency relief grant, about $830,000, has been spent. This grant is  more flexible and can cover budgeted items, but much of the focus must be on elementary schools.

The $159,000 spent has paid for software, ergonomics for at-home work and some psychological services for students.

Only 6% of the second installment of $3.4 million has been spent, Neal said.

About $44,000 has been spent so far on substitute teacher salaries, but the remaining $3.3 million in the grant would also allow for three intervention or crisis teachers, summer school staff, bus drivers, increased translation services, cleaning supplies and more PPE.

The school department is waiting to hear the amount of, along with the state and federal guidelines for, the third installment.

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