City Council dives into unspent CARES Act fund with school officials

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, March 6, 2024

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Suffolk, Virginia—Some Suffolk city councilmembers asked school officials some tough questions regarding unspent C.A.R.E.S Act funding during the Wednesday, Feb. 21 council meeting. The council unanimously approved reappropriating the unspent funds.

The council, along with  SPS Chief Financial Officer Wendy Forsman and Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III engaged in a discussion on reappropriating $8,324,403 of unspent C.A.R.E.S. Act and State Technology Equipment grant funds to be used by Sept. 30, 2024.

The city of Suffolk’s Interim Director of Budget, Charles Meek, provided an overview of the ordinance during the meeting.

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“After the end of Fiscal Year 23, Suffolk Public Schools determined that it had an additional $8.3 million in unused grant funds that was beyond what was included in the adopted FY24 schools budget that are eligible to carry forward into FY24,” Meek said.

Meek said SPS requested the funds be appropriated for use, which include $3,012,232.00 in C.A.R.E.S Act II funds towards remedial summer school expenses, textbooks and Chromebooks, $4,365,607.00 in C.A.R.E.S Act III funds for various elementary school roof replacements and $946,564.00 for technology equipment grant funds towards Chromebooks.

When Council Member Timothy Johnson asked about the C.A.R.E.S. Act funding, SPS Chief Financial Officer Wendy Forsman explained that the funding is “multi-year money” and that each year when doing the budget, they have to estimate what they believe they’re carrying forward into the new year.

“When we made those estimates back in May… We thought we were going to be completely spent at that point for those items, and those were the textbooks, the Chromebooks,” Forsman said. “This had all been ordered in March, but in fact, they didn’t come and show up until August and September. So they become a current year expense, and so we have to then ask you to give us that money in the current year to allow the expense. And so, it’s just simply [an] estimate thing. We estimated in March, April, and May when we were doing the budget. Unfortunately, some things didn’t come in until the next year, so then the estimate is wrong, which is why we’re coming back to you and showing you what the wrong estimates were.”

Council Member Roger Fawcett followed, noting that he was “perplexed” and said they were down to eight months to get the money spent.

“…You’ve had all this time to commit those funds. Why have you waited until almost eight months out to do this, which is totally, in my book, unacceptable,” Fawcett said. “This just drops in the hat [in] February, the last part of the month here, eight months before you need to spend… We get complaints all the time that there’s money out there, but the money is not being spent. This is a very perfect example of it right here.”

Fawcett continued.

“But I’m just really perplexed with this whole thing because, time and time again, you all come back here with some kind of a resolution wanting this money and that money that hasn’t been spent. And maybe, somebody needs to go deeper into this, and make sure these funds are committed and taken care of,” Fawcett said. “This is really inexcusable in my opinion and from a county standpoint and for the schools – I’m all for you, don’t get it the wrong way, I’m all for you – but I want it to be right.”

Gordon responded, noting that Forsman and Meek explained there were supply chain issues.

“Anytime that we have not received their equipment within the next fiscal year, we must carry it forward. Also, as a reminder, as you mentioned, this is grant funds. This has nothing to do with the City of Suffolk money and the City of Suffolk tax dollars. We’ve explained to you what this is for. Technology, Chromebooks, replacement cycles. Replacement cycles normally for Chromebooks are three years if you’re lucky,” Gordon said. “We’ve been allowed because of C.A.R.E.S. Act to be able to try and keep it to three to five years when previously we were on five to seven year replacement cycles.” 

Gordon continued, noting that the memo was dated for Feb. 2.

“We always will come back to the City and ask for money that was appropriated from grants or from the state because that’s part of the process any time it goes over two fiscal years,” he said. “So we wanted to make sure that we provided enough time if there were any questions from any members of council on why we were spending this money, especially since this money was already encumbered and we knew what we were going to spend it for.”

Fawcett followed by expressing that he would’ve loved to receive a phone call from Gordon going over the upcoming $8.324,403. City Manager Albert S. Moor II followed up to clarify the memo that Gordon sent to him and the steps that followed.

“Superintendent sent me a memo on Feb. 2 that included the top half of this letter, which gave us what they had to reappropriate. We went back and asked ‘What is it for?’ and the other day, we got that back after we asked for that,” Moor said. “That’s what I was referring to the other day, I was referring to the bottom half of the letter that’s on the amended ordinance. Not the one that’s in your book. The one that’s in your book is the one that we received on the 2nd.”

Moor further clarified that he had been in conversation with Gordon over the “last couple days” as well as noting that Meeks was in contact with Forsman as well.

“I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here from my standpoint. [What] I want to do is be straightforward [about] which memo came when, and the memo with the expenditures was a response to a question that we posed in the last few days, which was received the day before yesterday, or yesterday I believe,” Moor said.

Council Members Shelley Butler-Barlow, Leroy Bennett, and LeOtis Williams each thanked both Gordon and Forsman for their efforts to keep the funding in Suffolk, explaining the grant fund spending process.

“I understand what Councilman Fawcett and other members are saying. This was, like, put on the dias tonight. This is our first time seeing the revised version of it. So we have to digest it,” Williams said. “It’s not that we don’t want the school to get the funding. It’s not that we’re not going to give it to you. It’s just that we just wanted some accountability as to what the funds are being used for and we needed the public to hear what those funds are being used for.”

Fawcett followed with additional remarks.

“I’ll apologize if I got to a point where I said something that might not have been in line with what you would have liked to have heard. But I think that if you look at what Councilman Williams just said, those were the unknowns,” Fawcett said. “Unknowns when you stick a big dollar in front of us is… certainly we want to ask questions. Certainly, we want the public to know what the money is being spent for.”