FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — The infusion of $93.5 million in federal stimulus funds to the Fulton County School System will fill many of the needs created under the COVID-19 pandemic. But significant issues remain and will continue for some time, district officials say.
“[Stimulus funds] assisted with balancing our budget and allowed us to provide the resources that support our health and safety measures during this pandemic,” said Fulton Schools Chief Financial Officer Marvin Dereef.
Since March the Georgia Department of Education has allocated over $2.1 billion in federal funds among the state’s 180 school districts through two rounds of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Fulton Schools received $18 million in the first round last year and has been allocated an additional $75 million this year. The Georgia Department of Education has received approval to begin the allocation process to districts.
Fulton Schools is among the state’s top 10 recipients of CARES Act funding, which is based on the Title 1 formula tied to household income and poverty levels.
The district’s fiscal year 2021 budget of just over $1 billion was balanced with the help of a $29 million draw down of its own reserve funds. The federal CARES Act funds allowed the district to cover ongoing pandemic-related costs without another hit to reserves.
Dereef acknowledged some question why the district is spending so much when more than half the students have opted not to return to classrooms.
One social media post drew significant attention asking if taxpayers should receive a “rebate” for costs saved on maintaining buildings that were shut down for months, along with idled school buses and other factors.
Dereef said expenses remained, although the categories may have changed.
“We continue to provide resources and support for face-to-face and remote learning students,” Dereef said. “The type of resources may be different, but the cost still exists. We also have the cost associated with added health and safety measures.”
Acquiring personal protective equipment for staff, keeping schools safe and clean, providing additional administrative costs and psychological counseling services have run up significant additional costs, Dereef said.
Meghan Frick, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education, said federal stimulus funds are flexible and can be used by school districts for any activity already approved for government funding.
“[It covers almost all] activities in response to COVID-19, including school meals, remote learning, facilities and equipment, mental and physical health, professional development and continuity of staff and services,” Frick said.
There is no requirement that district’s receive permission on how to spend the funds, however districts must submit a budget.
“[School districts] have to budget the funds, and we approve the budget before they can [access funds],” Frick said. “We will monitor the use of funds as we do with all funding to districts.”
A third round of CARES Act funding of $113 billion for public schools is currently under consideration in Congress.