federal stimulus funds

CUMMING, Ga. — Officials with Forsyth County Schools are questioning a formula for federal stimulus funds they say is lopsided and unfairly penalizes the district based on the makeup of its student population.

Georgia’s public schools have received nearly $6 billion in federal stimulus funds in the past year aimed at helping K-12 schools respond and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The school-based funding has been included in three separate stimulus bills approved by Congress over the past year.

The first two rounds under then-President Donald Trump were referred to as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act; the second under President Joe Biden were included in the recently-approved American Rescue Plan.

Lawmakers mandated the education funds be allocated to school systems based on the percentage of students receiving Title 1 services tied to lower family income. Fewer than 14 percent of Forsyth County’s 51,500 students fall into that category, according to the Georgia Department of Education. The statewide average is nearly 57 percent.

The formula puts Forsyth County Schools, with its low Title 1 population, at a distinct disadvantage for COVID relief funds. Officials have maintained the district is facing the same challenges as all districts in providing education under pandemic disruptions.

In total, Forsyth County Schools received $20.5 million in federal funds, equal to $397 per student. By contrast, Atlanta Public Schools with 1,000 fewer students, received the equivalent of $6,234 per student.

In an email sent in January to the Georgia Department of Education prior to the second round of stimulus funding, a Forsyth County Schools official questioned the continued reliance on the Title 1 formula for future allocations.

“If Title 1 is used again…Forsyth will be shorted again, and some school districts could receive more in CARES Acts fund than the austerity cuts,” wrote Larry Hammel, chief financial officer for the Forsyth County School System. The email was obtained under the Open Records Act.

Most Georgia school systems began the school year in the red after $950 million in state education was cut through “austerity reductions.” A mid-year budget adjustment restored 60 percent of the cuts, but many school systems, including Forsyth County Schools, still struggled.

“Forsyth had a $23 million deficit in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, and receiving $1.7 million in the first round of CARES Act funds did not help,” Hammel wrote.

The formula remained unchanged through all three rounds of stimulus funding for Georgia, which grew from $411 million in the first round to $3.8 billion in the latest round approved last month.

A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education said the decision on allocations is out of the hands of education officials, at both the state and national level.

“The funding method was determined in law, not by the U.S. Department of Education,” said Matt Cardoza, external affairs director for the department.

Of the 193 school districts in Georgia, 10 systems received almost half of the nearly $6 billion in federal stimulus funds allocated to the state. Forsyth County Schools ranked 60th among the 193 districts in terms of total funds received, despite its size as the 6th largest in the state with 51,548 students.

DeKalb County Schools, the state’s 3rd largest school district, received the most federal stimulus among the state’s school districts. It has received $486 million to date — $5,264 per student. The district recently returned to face-to-face instruction after seven months of universal remote learning.

Forsyth County Schools was the largest school district in the state to open last August with in-person instruction.

Cardoza said the federal stimulus funds do not come with any incentives or mandates to open schools to face-to-face learning.

“We have allowed local districts to determine [their instruction model], but State Superintendent Richard Woods has stated clearly he believes face-to-face is the best model for the majority of students,” Cardoza said.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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