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Council approves reappropriating money for school division

City Council voted unanimously to let Suffolk Public Schools keep $3.26 million in unspent money from the previous school year, despite questions about how it would be used.

School division officials cited numerous operational needs brought on by the coronavirus pandemic that would not be covered through federal CARES Act money.

However, Councilmen Tim Johnson, Mike Duman and Roger Fawcett had concerns about how the money would be spent. Johnson asked school division superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III and its chief financial officer Wendy Forsman at the Sept. 2 meeting to provide more specifics on how the school division would use the one-time money.

Gordon noted that the money would be used for one-time needs from the pandemic that will not be covered through federal funds being provided — things that include additional disinfecting machines and supplies, social distancing and other pandemic signage for 26 locations, multiple Plexiglas barriers for those locations, 2,500 masks for staff, 44,000 masks for students, instructional items for special needs students to use at home and contract assistance for the 14,800 devices that are being distributed to students and will need maintenance or repairs.

Gordon also told council that the division did not buy replacement buses last year, and did not do other one-time building maintenance items last year due to uncertainty in state funding.

“Three million million is a great deal of money, and personally, I would just like to see accountability on how this money is spent, whether it be for maintenance, for school construction,” Johnson said. “How do we know that this is not going to be spent back on salaries, or existing expenses?”

Gordon, as he outlined in a Aug. 25 memo to City Manager Patrick Roberts, said there are costs associated with the overall safety of division staff, along with signage, masks and technology needs. He said he isn’t sure how talk of using the money for salaries has gained traction around the city, but stressed the money is being used for one-time pandemic-related needs.

“These are costs that we know we’re going to have to encumber, and there is no end date for this,” Gordon said.

Forsman noted that the majority of the CARES Act money the school division has received went toward tablets and Chromebooks for pre-K through 5th grade students, as well as mobile hotspots and some computer software. The division received $2.9 million in CARES Act money in May, and will receive another nearly $2.9 million in the act’s elementary and secondary school emergency relief funds from the state.

She noted the school division would be spending $225,000 on disinfecting machines, and it would have to spent at least another $150,000 on chemicals for those machines.

Though the division did have some stockpile, Forsman said the division would need more chemicals as more students and staff are in classrooms and buses and it increases the frequency of using them, which will cost more.

She said it would also be using the money to buy more hand sanitizer and hand sanitizer stations. For buses, Forsman said it has been difficult to find smaller, 12-ounce dispensers as they require. One-gallon pumps and hand sanitizer costs the division $50,000, and it has spent another $80,000 so far on signage.

The first purchase of masks for students cost $10,000, and she noted two different software purchases for virtual learning needs that cost $240,000. Forsman said the division is still waiting on price quotes for materials for students with special needs, particularly for those who cannot use computers.

Forsman said the division also needs more support for the many more electronic devices that are now in the hands of its nearly 14,000 students.

“There’s quite a few needs here that aren’t covered by the CARES Act that we’re talking about purchasing with this one-time money,” Forsman said.

Roberts, responding to a question from Duman on whether the city would have enough money through the end of the fiscal year, “staff’s recommendation that you approve this is based on a high degree of confidence that the school system can put this money to good use for any litany of qualifying one-time expenditures, and they will not create any short-term jeopardy to the city’s operating needs.”

Duman said that with the division getting CARES Act and Capital Improvement Program and Plan money also — about $9 million total in one-time money, he said — “I certainly hope you take advantage of these one-time funds, using them for one-time expenses and catch up on some of these issues that you’ve had to deal with.”

Fawcett said he didn’t have an issue with the money being spent on the one-time needs other than for purchasing buses.

“I don’t know why you put that in the fund now,” Fawcett said. “It’s something you can do a little later on, because we aren’t using school buses right now. There really shouldn’t be a handful of buses anywhere if all the students are home other than going out and doing the meal thing.”

He said school decontaminations should be minimal now because, he said, there are not a lot of staff or students in the buildings.

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said the school division’s needs justify the money being returned to it, and agreed with its need for more buses. Students and teachers both need support with virtual learning.

“I think what they are asking for here is reasonable,” Bennett said.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said the money had already been appropriated to the school division, and she fully supported having the money go to it. She said technology could be damaged, and virtual learning could last longer than expected.

“Questioning as to how it’s going to be used? I see the need. … I understand what you’re doing with it,” the mayor said. “I understand what I believe you’re doing with it, and I truly believe that you understand this is one-time money.”