Oconee County Schools has been granted more than $5 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) monies, according to a report presented to the Board of Education in June.
At that time, Oconee County Schools showed $1.8 million of that money allocated, with a little more than $1 million for distance learning.
None of the $3.3 million granted to the schools as part of the last of the three of the ESSER grants had been allocated in that June report.
Oconee County Schools, in its application for the grant had said, however, that it would use just less than half of the amount for purchasing educational technology and just more than a quarter for activities to address learning loss.
In a report to the Board at its last Board meeting on Aug. 9, Oconee County Schools financial staff reported that the schools had spent only $189,753 of the allocated $3.3 million and committed only another $83,520.
In the application for that third wave of ESSER Funds, dated June 3, 2021, OCS said its plans were updated to “Current CDC Guidelines” at that time and that the application will be updated within six months.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Aug. 4, the day classes began at Oconee County Schools, changed its guidance to “recommend universal indoor masking for all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
Oconee County Schools at present is not requiring masks, only saying students and staff are allowed to wear them.
ESSER I Funds
The document presented to the Board on June 14 listed three spending categories for the $331,084 in ESSER funds received by Oconee County Schools from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) of 2020.
|Burgess, Michael Ransom, Harlow 8/9/2021|
In the June document, Meal Services received the largest allocation of funds ($132,621), followed by Distance Learning ($126,471) and then Technology ($71,992).
Meal service was for “continuous feeding service after school closure.”
Distance learning was for “online learning platforms, learning resources, instructional software, instructor fees.”
Technology was for “student chromebooks, teacher laptops, WiFi rangers, service cost for WiFi rangers.”
ESSER II Funds
Oconee County Schools received $1,487,017 in ESSER Funds from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) of 2021, according to that June 14 document.
The bulk of those funds were allocated to Distance Learning ($921,184), followed by Technology ($404,816).
The descriptions were the same as for ESSER I, “online learning platforms, learning resources, instructional software, instructor fees” and “student chromebooks, teacher laptops, WiFi rangers, service cost for WiFi rangers.”
Other allocated funding was for thermometers, signs, directional markings, plexiglass, sanitizer and sanitizer stations, disinfectant spray and equipment, and for personal protective equipment.
The allocation listed $36,561 for contributing to the $1,000 retention bonus that the system gave “to all regular employees.”
ESSER III Funds
The document given to the Board in June contained no allocation of the $3,339,628 in ESSER III funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
|June 14, 2021, Report On ESSER Funds|
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Oconee County Schools did assign a percentage to the listed funding categories in its application.
Based on those percentages, $1.6 million will be spent on educational technology and $651,227 will be spent on summer learning and after school programs.
Mental health services will get $156,962, and assistance to parents will get $126,905.
OCS is committing $13,358 to "Developing strategies and implementing public health protocols including, to the greatest extent practicable, policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the reopening and operation of school facilities to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff."
The allocation form lists $681,285 for “Other activities,” including “continuing to employ existing staff” of the schools.
Aug. 9 Report
The document that Liz Harlow, acting chief financial officer, presented to the Board of Education Aug. 9 was a compilation of all spending of federal funds budgeted for the current fiscal year, which began on July 1, actual spending year to date, the amounts encumbered or requested, and the amount available.
The report listed $23,778 in ESSER I spending for the fiscal year starting on July 1, with another $4,033 listed as encumbered or requested, and $19,745 still available, for a total of $47,556.
Harlow had said in June that ESSER I and ESSER II were completed. Even though ESSER III appears on Aug. 9 report, ESSER II does not.
The total amounts of funds for ESSER III does not match those from the June document.
I asked Harlow on Aug. 16 for help in understanding the discrepancies between the two documents. I copied my request to Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communication for Oconee County Schools.
Harlow has never responded, and Jimenez said Oconee County Schools would no longer respond to my questions because I ask too many. I am allowed to file open records requests, she said, but that would not help me understand the discrepancies in these two reports.
June 14 Board Meeting
The June 14 Board meeting was the final one for Saranna Charping, retiring as chief financial officer for Oconee County Schools.
|Projected ESSER III Funding|
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Charping introduced Harlow, Oconee County Schools director of Finance. Harlow presented to the Board the document listing ESSER I, II, and III allocation categories.
Board Chair Tom Odom stopped Harlow, and said "I came from a background in education. That's one acronym I don't know."
"So the acronym means Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funding," she replied.
Harlow told the Board that ESSER funding is based on Title I allocations, which are pegged “on our free and reduced meal percentages.”
“In comparison to the 180 school districts in the state of Georgia, Oconee County Schools received the second lowest funding per FTE (full time equivalent) for each of these three ESSER grants,” she said.
“I would like to emphasize that these grants are reimbursable grants,” she said, “meaning that expenses must first be incurred and paid and only then can ESSER funds be requested for reimbursement.”
Harlow said that “ESSER I and ESSER II were closed out and all funds were expended in the cost categories.”
In reference to the $3.3 million allocated in ESSER III, Harlow said “we are working through the Department of Education process and waiting on the next steps.” The federal funding goes through the Georgia Department of Education.
Harlow said Oconee County Schools also had received about $88,000 in “smaller grants provided through ESSER I.
She then asked for questions from the Board.
“I don't have a question per se, it may surprise you,” Board Member Tim Burgess said to Charping when she returned to the podium, “but I do have something I want to say.”
“You've moved this whole school system to a new height of fiscal integrity,” he said.
Aug. 9 Meeting
Harlow, now in the capacity as acting chief financial officer, appeared before the Board on Aug. 9 with the listing of spending of federal funds, including for the relief fund acts.
She said the last item she was presenting to the Board was “a report on the school district's federal grants.
“This is a new report that business services will be updating each month,” she said.
“As a reminder these grants are reimbursable grants meaning that expenses must first be incurred and paid and only then can funds be requested for reimbursement,” she added.
The list included the ESSER I and ESSER III grants.
“And that concludes my report unless there are any questions,” Harlow said.
“Yeah, one question,” Burgess said. “Thanks for the report on the federal funds. That's a very interesting report and very timely especially given what we were dealing with financially from last year.”
“One question on that report, on the ESSER III funds,” Burgess said. “We've got there a pretty large balance still available to us for the year.
“Can you talk just a minute about the eligible types of expenses that that money can be used for?” Burgess asked.
Harlow said the money could be used for “technology, instructional software, online learning platforms, and learning recovery.”
“Okay, learning recovery,” Burgess continued. “What is that acronym, learning recovery?”
Harlow turned to Chief Academic Officer Claire Buck.
“So that would include some of the summer programming that we did for our students,” Buck said, including camps for the summer and throughout the school year.
“Thank you,” Burgess said. “Thank you very much.”
On the application for the American Rescue Plan ESSER III Funds, Oconee County Schools was given five boxes it could check to indicate how it will use the $3.3 million “to implement strategies to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in schools.”
Physical distancing, “handingwashing and respiratory etiquette,” cleaning and maintaining health facilities, and contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine were all checked.
“Universal and correct use of masks” was not.
Oconee County Schools is no longer doing contact tracing and quarantining as it did last year, having turned over responsibility for those activities to the Department of Public Health.
“At the present time, using ARP funds is not necessary for implementation of these strategies,” Oconee County Schools states in its application.
Oconee County Schools checked a box on the form giving the following assurance.
“The LEA assures if they revise their plan, the revised plan will address each of the aspects of safety currently recommended by the CDC or, if the CDC has updated its safety recommendations at the time the LEA is revising its plan, the revised plan will address the extent to which the LEA has adopted policies, and describe any such policies, for each of the updated safety recommendations.”
Oconee County Schools, the local education agency, checked a box saying “The Plan Will Be Updated Within 6 Months” and dated that statement for June 3, 2021.
That means Oconee County Schools will need to update the form and certify it is following CDC guidelines on Dec. 3, 2021.
I have embedded below the video of the June 14 and Aug. 9 meetings of the Board.
The videos, recorded by Oconee County Schools, are on the YouTube site of the schools.
Harlow began her comment at 18:04 in the first video from June 14.
She began discussing her federal funding report at 43:50 in the Aug. 9 video.