The cities of Mound and Orono allocated significant portions of their CARES Act money to the Westonka and Orono school districts, helping to offset what each district is projecting will be more than $1 million in pandemic-related expenditures for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
“We are incredibly appreciative of the leadership shown by the city of Orono, the city of Mound—[Orono] Mayor Walsh, [Mound] Mayor Salazar, their teams, their staff—of how they have worked to direct these funds in our community to areas of need,” said Kevin Borg, Westonka Schools superintendent.
Mound voted Sept. 22 to give $500,000 of its $704,000 federal CARES allocation to Westonka School District.
Westonka also received coronavirus relief funds from Orono after that city had voted the week prior, on Sept. 14, to establish the Orono CARES for Schools Grant Program and give nearly half of the city’s $610,000 allocation to the Westonka and Orono school districts. Orono Schools received $194,400 under the new program; Westonka received $105,600. The amounts were allocated proportional to the Orono tax base enrolled in the two districts.
The combined relief from the two cities, taken alongside initial GEARS and ESSER grants and the $600,000 direct payment from the state’s allocation to the school district, is expected to cover a projected $1.2 million in COVID-related expenditures that Westonka Schools is facing, said superintendent Borg.
“We’re in a time of divisiveness. To see people come together to serve the community—this is just an incredible example of that,” he said. “For them to direct these funds so that we can keep kids and staff in school, that we can operate school and put us in the best position to continue to operate—this has been wonderful.”
Orono Schools’ John Morstad, director of business services, and Orono superintendent Karen Orcutt said their district, too, would likely face a million or more in pandemic-related expenditures but that it was too soon to give a hard number.
Morstad said the $678,000 that the district received in direct aid from the state has already helped to buy baseline hardware items for a network that has been strained by distance learning. The district also invested in swivel cameras that follow a teacher in the classroom and help with streaming content to students who may be in the same class but who are now separated into different rooms for social distancing.
The state had released late in June $841 million in CARES money to Minnesota cities and counties to use in countering the coronavirus pandemic. But after getting the cash in hand many have struggled to find uses for it after obvious expenditures like PPE, added custodial hours and telework solutions left their coffers still flush with tens of thousands—or hundreds of thousands—in relief money that was tied to specific usage criteria.
Cities’ use of CARES money is limited to unaccounted for costs incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30 of this year as result of the current public health crisis. Dustin Rief, Orono city administrator, as well as officials with other area cities, noted that new guidance has been issued almost daily around what are and are not eligible expenditures for CARES Act money.
“The hardest thing we’re trying to figure out is how do we keep it in the community, how do we make an impact?” said Rief.
That question has also niggled at members of the task force the city of Mound created in July for determing how best to use what city officials were already foreseeing to be a surfeit of money beyond what could be used at City Hall.
The task force, comprised of Mayor Salazar, council member Sherrie Pugh, WeCAN executive director Christopher Anderson and local business representatives Colin Charlson and Kelli Gillespie-Coen, had some of its initial ideas quashed when yet more guidance came down via a Minnesota Management and Budget webinar, said Catherine Pausche, Mound finance director.
But the U.S. Treasury established a presumption early in September that the nation’s school districts would expend $500 per student related to COVID-19 precaution.
Mound city manager Eric Hoversten said the idea to allocate money to the schools was “heavily endorsed” by the city’s business reps on the task force and further explained in a Sept. 17 memo to Mound city council members their reasoning that “reopening schools safely helps local small businesses retain the services of their employees” by allowing families to continue to work more easily than if their child were at home.”
“The school system is a valuable attribute in our community, and making sure these current situations don’t disrupt that or degrade that in the future is important from an investment in our community perspective,” he added.
The additional funds from Mound and Orono to the schools are only salve to the wound of expenditure. Just as cities cannot use CARES money to recoup losses in property tax revenue, school districts cannot use it to make up for their gaps in revenue, which many districts are facing through cancelation of fee-based programs and lost enrollment.
Westonka had in June projected an enrollment this year of 2,521 students. As of Oct. 5, that projection has been lowered to 2,443 or a loss of 78 students. Enrollment numbers are a big factor in education funding.
Westonka’s Borg said that everything from parents delaying Kindergarten for their children to families opting for homeschooling, private schools or PSEO programs have affected enrollment numbers.
“I’m always going to be an advocate for school choice, with what’s happening now and what works best for families, so for those that made other decisions I completely understand why they do it,” he said.
The district’s biggest losses in enrollment have been in its Kindergarten and eleventh-grade classes, these grades anticipated to lose 37 students and 27 students respectively, according to the revised Oct. 5 projections.