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Bumps in the road as LI school districts jostle for a share of $850M in federal funds

The Elwood district plans to use some of

The Elwood district plans to use some of its federal stimulus money for after-school sessions to help teenage students obtain required course credits. Credit: Steven Sunshine

Long Island school districts are scrambling to secure shares of more than $850 million in federal COVID-19 relief money, even as questions surface at the state level over whether money is being properly tracked.

The deadline for districts to file requisitions for federal funding is Sept. 30. However, coordination between federal, state and local authorities in arranging distribution has proved difficult, and districts have been granted multiple time extensions for submitting applications.

WHAT TO KNOW

New federal stimulus money for Long Island schools totals more than $850 million — the biggest U.S. investment in a half-century.

Formal deadline for district applications is Sept. 30, but the state is offering extensions as school districts scramble to put together requisition forms.

A nonpartisan advocacy group contends that oversight of aid distribution is inadequate; state education officials reject that assertion.

Meanwhile, a relatively small number of Long Island school systems — about 15% of the total, according to a Newsday spot check — have posted state-required reports on how they intend to spend federal dollars. The bulk of that money comes from stimulus packages approved in Washington, D.C., in December and March and is meant to be spent over the next three or four years.

Stimulus funds are being distributed under a federal formula based largely on numbers of students from low-income families in each district. Allocations vary widely from one district to another.

Local spending proposals are designed to meet a variety of objectives, from after-school classes aimed at helping students catch up with coursework, to installation of ventilation systems designed to protect against infection. In Nassau and Suffolk counties alone, projected federal assistance totals $855 million — the largest such investment in a half-century.

How funds are being spent

Kathleen Bannon, superintendent of Copiague Public Schools. Friday,

The funding has been 'tremendously helpful.'

-Kathleen Bannon, superintendent

School district: Copiague 

Plans for stimulus funds include: Doubling the staff of bilingual social workers from 4 to 8

Estimated cost: $400,000 annually 

 

One priority for Kathleen Bannon, superintendent of Copiague schools, is doubling the district's staff of bilingual social workers from four to eight. This, Bannon said, will help the district reach out to the homes of Hispanic students, who constitute more than 60% of local enrollment.

Bannon estimates the cost at $400,000 annually, adding that the extra staffing could prove invaluable, at least for the years that COVID-19 relief money remains available. The district's total federal allotment is about $23 million, according to the state's Division of the Budget.

"We're typically underfunded in Copiague," said Bannon, now in her seventh year as superintendent there. "So this money we've been given, it was a complete surprise. I don't even know how to express our feelings. It's been tremendously helpful."

Huntington School Distrcit Superintendent James Polansky at his

'Most of the infrastructure on Long Island is 50 or 60 years old.'

- James Polansky, superintendent

School district: Huntington

Plans for stimulus funds include: Improved ventilation and air-conditioning in its eight school buildings

Estimated cost: About $4 million

Huntington, meanwhile, hopes to invest about $4 million in improved ventilation and air-conditioning in its eight school buildings, along with $122,000 for 234 touchless water faucets. The faucets help safeguard students against virus infections by allowing them to turn on water via electronic sensors without touching the faucets themselves.

The district's total allotment is about $8.2 million, according to the budget division.

James Polansky, the Huntington superintendent, said his district's buildings are already up to code, but that the planned renovations will make things better. "Most of the infrastructure on Long Island is 50 or 60 years old," he said.

Elwood schools Superintendent Kenneth Bossert last year.

'It really was a wonderful opportunity for our community.'

- Kenneth Bossert, superintendent

School district: Elwood

Plan for stimulus funds include: After-school sessions to help students obtain required course credits

Estimated cost: To use part of the $380,000 provided to help students make up for learning loss

In Elwood, one portion of federal aid provides $380,000 to help students make up for learning loss. The district plans to use some of the money in funding after-school sessions that help teenage students obtain required course credits.

"It really was a wonderful opportunity for our community," said Superintendent Kenneth Bossert, referring to federal assistance that he said totaled about $4 million.

Oversight scrutinized, defended

Across New York, the full scope of the federal cash windfall did not become apparent until April, when the state laid out appropriations of both its own money and U.S. federal dollars for all districts. This left local administrators with limited time to plan for the 2021-22 school term, which began July 1.

Last week, the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group with offices in Manhattan and Albany, issued a report concluding that financial oversight was inadequate. The report urged the state to step up its tracking of federal education dollars and to issue periodic updates, especially on the question of whether money was spent effectively in helping students recover from "learning loss" suffered during the pandemic.

Patrick Orecki, the commission's director of state studies, declared in the report that new funding, both federal and state, "is not accompanied by an adequate management, oversight, and accountability process."

"On an ongoing basis, the state should manage, expect and hold districts accountable to improve achievement and reduce education disparities, using data that it makes publicly available," added Orecki, who formerly worked for the state's budget division.

Taxpayer advocate Laurann Pandelakis, of Manhasset, agreed.

"At a time when people are fleeing New York State due to exorbitant property taxes, specifically school taxes, taxpayers may be expecting some accountability," said Pandelakis, who is active in a regional advocacy group, Long Islanders for Educational Reform.

In response to the commission's report, state Education Department authorities told Newsday that they had provided extensive support for financial planning by districts, otherwise known as local educational agencies, or LEAs. Topics covered in state advisories included using summer schools and after-school programs to make up for lost instructional time.

Emily DeSantis, a department spokesperson, said her agency "firmly believes that transparency and accountability of how schools and districts spend state and federal funds is paramount to ensuring all funds are utilized appropriately and for their intended purposes."

DeSantis added that the department had systems in place to approve and track district spending.

A total of 829 districts, charter schools and other LEAs have obtained approval of federal allocations from December, state education officials said. Applications are under review from 372 LEAs for a large portion of March allocations, those officials added.

A prominent local educator, Phyllis Harrington, who is superintendent in Oceanside, agreed that districts are being held accountable.

"The application process was very detailed," said Harrington, who also serves as president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "Before you get a penny back, you have to account for how you spent that money."

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