NEW BEDFORD — In a normal year, the New Bedford Public School District receives about $16 million dollars from the federal government.
This year, the district is set to receive upwards of $73 million in one-time federal relief funds aimed at safely reopening schools and addressing the needs of students affected by the pandemic. The school district has an operating budget of about $192 million this year, not including the federal aid.
“It’s unprecedented, this level of funding,” said Andrew O’Leary, assistant superintendent of finance and operations for New Bedford Public Schools, of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) plan. “We have a great opportunity to apply this funding.”
Wait, where is this money coming from?
New Bedford, along with almost every other city nation-wide, is receiving an influx in federal relief funds aimed at recovering from the pandemic and boosting local economies. The city is set to receive roughly $64 million and the school district will receive an additional $73 million. The funds are the local extension of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed in March. The question remains: how will New Bedford spend this unprecedented amount of money?
On Monday, the School Committee, which has final discretionary approval, will hear the administration’s first public presentation on possible uses for the initial $26 million portion of those funds, which the district has already received. The remaining $46 million is set to arrive later in the year.
But a fission seems to be emerging on how those funds would best be used.
As a one-time fund, some think the money would be most appropriately used to catch up on maintenance deferred during the pandemic and other standard material costs, like textbooks and desks, which would put the schools ahead of their budget in the future. The expansion of some programs, like pre-kindergarten, could drive more state-aid to the school in the years ahead.
Others think the funds should be funneled toward addressing deeper systemic issues within the schools; bringing on staff and launching pilot programs with an emphasis on diversity, equity and mental health. With the prospect of the Fair Share Amendment, a bill that would drastically increase aid to public schools, reaching the ballot in 2022, this camp sees the ESSER funds as a first step toward substantial and sustained reform.
New Bedford schools will receive more than $73 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. How would you like to see the School Department spend the money?
The school administration has already sketched out a preliminary plan on how the initial $26 million ESSER tranche might be rolled out, focusing largely on building repairs, new technology, supplies and a standard renewal of the K-12 curriculum. The largest portion, about $14 million, is planned to go toward accelerated building repairs at some of the older schools. It includes about $4 million for new technology and supplies. It also outlines roughly $2 million for additional staffing of English Language Learner programs, special education and expanding access for traditionally underserved students.
But feedback from the community has structured those priorities differently.
Earlier this year, the school administration collaborated with the United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts (UIA), a social and economic justice group, to solicit feedback from the community on priorities for allocating the funds. The group has held two well-attended panels and received 513 surveys (in English, Spanish, and Portuguese) from parents, teachers, administrators and cafeteria staff on their priorities for funding.
The top priority among those who took the survey was hiring more support staff, including: social workers, psychologists, paraprofessionals, teaching assistants and nurses; each “with an emphasis on diversity and reflecting the community of students,” according to initial survey results. In order, the next priorities highlighted by the survey were: mental health support for students and teachers, reducing class size and building renovations. Among those who filled out the survey in Spanish, additional help for students who speak other languages was also a priority.
“We have to begin thinking creatively about how to diversify staff, curriculum offerings and professional development,” said Andrea Sheppard Lomba, director of UIA. “That’s what this survey has highlighted as a top priority.”
Ricardo Rosa, co-chair of the Coalition to Save Our Schools, which he said represents about 150 parents, grandparents and educators, said his group is frustrated by what they see as the survey being only symbolic, while the administration continues with a pre-developed plan for distributing the funds. He said he believes the ESSER funds should be the start of building a model for participatory budgeting with the community of parents and teachers.
“My main concern is that the funds are not appropriated to the so-called ‘learning-loss’ narrative,” Rosa said, underscoring his group’s priority of hiring additional mental health support staff for students and teachers recovering from the stressors of the pandemic, even if temporary. “There are other losses to the community that are far more important today.”
The New Bedford Educators Association has yet to publicly weigh in on the distribution of ESSER funds, according to the newly elected union president, Tom Nickerson. He acknowledged the need to address infrastructure within the schools, and added he would like the funds to “better fortify the working conditions of our union members.”
Colleen Dawicki, vice chairperson of the School Committee, said the two directions of funding are not mutually exclusive. Though the initial $26 million is likely slated towards facility maintenance and projects already in the pipeline, the remaining $46 million still has the opportunity to address priorities outlined in the survey.
“We want to be thoughtful, but we know things right away that can be addressed,” she said. “Then we can step back and think big picture … that’s where I’m hoping we can be innovative, centering equity and other community priorities.”
Possible uses for the city’s pandemic relief aid include Zeiterion fix-up, water and sewer upgrades, Capitol Theatre restoration.
The administration and School Committee are cautious of leaning on one-time funds to increase staffing, which is a recurring cost. Of the initial $26 million ESSER funds, about $2 million has been outlined for additional staffing of English Language Learner programs, special education and expanding access for traditionally underserved students.
The district learned this lesson a decade ago, said O’Leary, assistant superintendent of finance and operations. When President Obama distributed federal relief funds to schools in response to the financial crisis, the School Department used that money to rehire laid-off staff. The result was a budget crisis for the school when those funds were depleted, O’Leary said, and the layoffs were only deferred.
There were no layoffs during the pandemic, O’Leary said.
O’Leary said that the increased staffing with ESSER funds should go toward expanding critical programs, specifically those with the potential to increase state aid to the School Department. This includes almost $1 million toward expanding pre-kindergarten programs and $1.5 million for expanding career and technical education.
He added that building repairs and purchasing new desks and textbooks could increase the likelihood of parents choosing New Bedford schools as their school of choice, driving more enrollment.
“A lot of these areas have a funding multiplier effect because they will help the district unlock additional aid, help the district become a district of choice, or defray future costs,” O’Leary said. “We have the opportunity to reduce out-of-district costs … instead we would be able to manage our needs within the district.”
Community groups are skeptical of the administration’s stance that ESSER is a one-time opportunity. The Student Opportunity Act, which was passed early in 2020, altered the funding formula so urban districts like New Bedford will see more aid implemented over the next seven years. And the Fair Share Amendment, also known as the “millionaires tax,” is likely to appear on the ballot in 2022.
“This would create long-term increased aid to the schools,” said Sheppard Lomba, of the Fair Share Amendment. “It should allow us to spur the more systemic changes highlighted from the community.”
The School Committee, which has final approval over how the funds are distributed, is holding its monthly meeting on Monday, July 12, at 6 p.m. in the Steven DeRossi Community Room at Keith Middle School, 225 Hathaway Blvd. According to the agenda, the administration is presenting a preliminary plan on how the ESSER funds will be distributed.
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