High school district and El Mo supporters dispute the use of state and federal COVID funds

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, April 29, 2021

Protestors from El Molino demonstrated in Sebastopol, objecting to the high school district's plan to move El Molino students to Analy. (Photo by Ceylan Crow)

Community members working to urge the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) to prolong its decision regarding high school consolidation have repeatedly claimed that incoming COVID-19 relief funds can be used to help prevent the merger this fall. However, local education officials have disputed the claims, insisting that state and federal funds coming in for COVID-19 relief wouldn’t allow the district to use the funds to make up for non-COVID-related costs.

Superintendent Toni Beal, former chief business official (CBO) Jeff Ogston and Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington maintain that state and federal funds are restricted to addressing COVID-19 impacts and learning loss incurred over the pandemic. Those will be the district’s priorities when evaluating the funding uses, according to Ogston, while Beal and Herrington said these funds cannot be used to maintain El Molino in Forestville.

Herrington, head of the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE), said the intended use of the state and federal funds is to offer students extended learning opportunities to make up for the past year’s learning interruptions, not to replace existing operational costs.

“If they submitted a budget that way, the authority of the county is that the budget could be rejected because it’s not an allowable expense,” he said in an April 21 interview.

The operative word is “additional” services for students, according to Herrington.

“It can’t be used to supplant the base program,” he said. “The base program is the district’s obligation every year. This is to give students greater opportunities. And that’s how we would evaluate their proposal for their extended learning plan.”

This contradicts the assertion in board meetings, circulating letters and rallies by community members urging a revote on consolidation that the district can use some of the $2.7 million of federal COVID-19 relief to prevent an immediate consolidation.

According to Ogston, CARES Act funds nearing $1.2 million, also referred to as Learning Loss Mitigation Funds, have already been spent with a deadline of May 31 this year. As of April 13, the district was still waiting for about $1.5 million collectively from both the American Rescue Plan and the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill passed in late 2020.

Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said she has recently inquired into Congressman Jared Huffman’s office on whether incoming federal funding in particular can be used for what community members have suggested.

What state and federal funds are coming to the district?

At the March 30 school board meeting, Ogston delivered a presentation on the state AB86 grants and federal funds from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act and American Rescue Plan, as well as their allowable uses.

The district is projected to receive $539,070 for the AB86 in-person instruction grant and $1,290,383 for the expanded learning opportunity grant that comes with certain conditions, according to Ogston.

For example, the district is required to spend $129,038 of the expanded learning grant on additional paraeducators and at least $1,096,826 must go to facilitating in-person learning for the reopening district, Ogston presented. The maximum amount that can be used for distance learning is $193,557, per his presentation.

Half of the grant funding will arrive in May and the other half in August of 2021, with an overall spending deadline of August 31, 2022. Ogston said the board must approve a spending plan for the AB86 funds by June 1 of this year.

Per Ogston’s presentation, the district will receive $480,241 in CRRSA funds, also called ESSER II, with a spending deadline of Sept. 30, 2023. The American Rescue Plan, or ESSER III, will bring in $1,068,705 to be spent by September 30, 2024, with a minimum of $213,741, or 20%, directed to address learning loss, according to Ogston.

The federal grants will be awarded within 60 days of receipt from the state, his presentation outlined.

What can the AB86 funds be used for?

The AB86 bill’s text states, “It is the intent of the legislature that local educational agencies offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible during the 2020-21 school year … and, starting in the 2020-21 school year and continuing into the 2022-23 school year, expand in-person instructional time and provide academic interventions and pupil supports to address barriers to learning and accelerate progress to close learning gaps.”

According to the bill’s text here, funds for in-person instruction can go toward COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, ventilation, cleaning and disinfection, site upgrades for health and safety, social and mental health services offered with in-person learning and salaries for certificated or classified staff providing the in-person education or services.

Ogston presented the seven allowable uses for a learning recovery program under AB86 that at the very least delivers supplemental instruction, social and emotional support and meals and snacks, as much as possible, to particular student groups if not more students.

The student groups described in the bill text are ones facing significant barriers: students that qualify for free and reduced meals, English Learners, homeless students, foster youth, students with exceptional needs, those at risk of neglect, abuse or exploitation, students who are disengaged, credit-deficient, who might not graduate or are below in grade level, “and other pupils identified by certificated staff.”

The allowable uses cover extending instructional learning time beyond what’s required, in days, minutes or summer school, intersessional instructional programs and more, “accelerating progress to close learning gaps,” with strategies like tutoring, learning recovery programs for academic or English language proficiency and related educator training.

The bill also allows funding for before and after school programs, health, counseling or mental health services, trauma-related programs, meal access, family or student support referrals and more in response to learning barriers, as well as funding students’ access to high-speed internet, technology and academic support through “community learning hubs,” and can also fund support for credit-deficient students towards grade promotion, graduation and college eligibility, according to Ogston.

The final allowable uses in the bill’s text refers to more academic services like “diagnostic, progress and benchmark assessments” and staff training on trauma-informed practices and approaches to social, emotional and academic needs with students and families.

A key definition at play in the bill is “supplemental instruction,” according to Ogston, defined in the text as “instructional programs provided in addition to and complementary to the regular instructional programs, including services provided pursuant to an individualized education program, offered or provided by a local educational agency.”

By June 1, the board needs to adopt a spending plan for the AB86 funds that goes before the Sonoma County Office of Education, Ogston said. Per the bill’s text, this plan includes demonstrating how much of the funds will be directed to each allowable use.

Local educational agencies are urged to prioritize students that in-person learning would help most and who are known to require academic interventions or integrated support, including the student groups earlier described and students from low-income families, disabled students, students without access to high-speed internet, software or devices for online learning and ones otherwise noted to need social and mental health supports.

How about the federal funding?

Ogston also presented information on monies from the CRRSA Act, also known as ESSER II, and the American Rescue Plan, called ESSER III, on March 30 as the next installments of learning loss funding through the CARES Act.

The allowable uses of ESSER II funds under the CRSSA Act are the same as what’s permitted under the CARES Act, according to an Office of Elementary and Secondary Education factsheet here.

The fact sheet states, “the ‘additional’ LEA allowable uses of funds under the CRRSA Act (addressing learning loss, preparing schools for reopening, and testing, repairing and upgrading projects to improve air quality in school buildings) already are permitted under the CARES Act,’” which is available here.

The American Rescue Plan’s inventory of uses available here is longer than AB86’s, and altogether, at least 20% of the funding has to tackle learning loss through evidence-based interventions, “such as summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive afterschool programs or extended school year programs,” with interventions that respond to how certain student groups are hit harder by COVID-19 impacts.

Next, the bill said the rest of the funds can go to anything allowed under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, as followed by a long list of other allowable uses.

According to the bill’s text, this funding can be used for response efforts to prevent or address COVID-19 with state, local, Tribal and regional public health departments and respond to the particular needs of children with disabilities, low-income students, English learners, homeless students, foster youth and racial and ethnic minority students.

The American Rescue Plan monies can also go to sanitation and cleaning supplies, staff training on sanitation and lowering infectious spread, educational technology for student and instructor interaction and mental health services, according to the bill text.

The text further states the funds can go to planning activities for long-term closures, like meals and technology access, and planning summer learning activities and supplemental afterschool programs that can address the needs of many of the same prioritized student groups.

Moreover, the monies can fund efforts to address learning loss for prioritized student groups, including low-income students, homeless students, foster youth, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities and children with disabilities, using academic progress assessments, aiding families in supporting their students, keeping tabs on attendance and boosting engagement over distance learning.

The American Rescue Plan funds can pay for facility repairs and upgrades to lower virus transmission and environmental hazard risks, to maintain and upgrade projects for better indoor air quality, like ventilation, and to create public health protocols adhering to CDC guidance for reopening and operating schools for student and staff safety.

Last on the list but not least for many district community members, the allowable uses include “other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.”

What do community members say funding can be used for?

On April 22, Community Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) opened a lawsuit over the vote to consolidate Analy High School and El Molino High School.

Although the lawsuit does not address the funding debate, an April 9 letter from CARE said that though CARE is aware of the district’s years-long structural deficit, there was not enough time between October and November of 2020 or “to explore alternatives to consolidation or to determine with finality which campus is most ideal moving forward.”

Further, the letter said the funds headed to the district are greater than the $750,000 figure that the district said in a November resolution could delay consolidation. However, that resolution was based on the two tax measures defeated in the March 2 election.

According to the letter, the funding increase “is exactly purposed to avoid making such drastic and painful changes during this COVID era,” calling attention to the American Rescue Plan’s allowable use for “other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.”

The letter also asserts that some of the state and federal funding from 2020 CARES Act allocations, the American Rescue Plan and the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill have no restrictions on use.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak in rural west county right now and there’s a lot of fear for the future because it feels like we’re not investing in future generations right now. It feels like we’re not investing in rural education and services,” said Lynda Hopkins, chair of the county board of supervisors, in an April 23 interview.

The April 9 CARE letter addressed to the board, “feeder” school boards, superintendents and the community asked how trustees could say they opted to prioritize services and programs for all and reduce operating costs, when far west county communities will have less access to programs, services and activities farther from home.

What do administrators say about the funding uses?

In an April 8 email, former CBO Jeff Ogston said that because most of the state and federal funds are restricted, the influx of money “would not be able to offset $750,000 in unrestricted general revenue expenses.”

Superintendent Toni Beal said in an April 7 interview that it’s the general fund that keeps the El Molino campus running and that the majority of incoming funds will not flow into the general fund because they are restricted to the list of allowable uses.

But according to Beal, the allowable uses of the funds do not cover where the actual cost savings of consolidating schools come from — one less principal, fewer classified staff and certificated teaching sections as smaller classes are combined into one class and from coaching and department chair stipends from merging staff.

The consolidation plan relocates Laguna High School and the district offices to the El Molino site, so some of its facilities would remain in use. Still, Beal said none of the incoming funds will be able to offset the $1.2 million that the consolidation of the Forestville campus saves the district because the allowable uses are to expand the regular program, not support it.

One exception Beal noted is that the COVID-19 funds may be able to offset some food service costs paid out of the general fund as food service costs have increased. “But there’s not enough savings in doing that that would support the keeping of a campus,” she said.

Further, Beal said AB86 monies require a board-approved spending plan and that funds are taken back if they aren’t used according to the plan. “You’re penalized for the amount that you use for any items that are not on the acceptable use list,” she said.

According to the superintendent, the district’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) allocation is reduced in the following year by the amount of money spent for purposes other than what the plan covers, encompassed in AB86’s allowable uses.

However, neither Beal, Herrington, nor Ogston brought up the American Rescue Plan’s final allowable use that does say it can be used “to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency for activities that pertain to maintaining a local educational agency’s operation, services continuity or retaining existing staff of the agency, instead discussing the funds in the context of the pandemic.

 

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