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At least $1.1M from CARES Act to help area schools

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Mary Lyon, assistant superintendent for business and operations at Alpena Public Schools, puts the finishing touches on the district’s budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year on Wednesday.

ALPENA — Public Schools in Northeast Michigan will benefit from a combined at least $1.1 million in one-time federal funds to address the impact of the coronavirus.

The U.S. Department of Education in April awarded Michigan nearly $390 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The Michigan Department of Education is awarding the funding to schools based on their 2019-20 Title I funding formula, a federal program that pays schools to help disadvantaged children meet academic standards.

School districts are required to formally apply for the funding.

Students finished out the 2019-20 school year either online or through correspondence courses after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March ordered buildings closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. She has said students could return in the fall, but has yet to offer specifics. Lawmakers this week unveiled a $1.3 billion plan that would give schools $800 per pupil to help overcome the impacts of the virus, although how that plan would be paid for remains to be seen, and the plan still has to pass the Legislature and get Whitmer’s signature.

The state’s School Aid Fund lost some $1.1 billion this fiscal year and is expected to lose another $1.2 billion next fiscal year because of economic shutdowns meant to slow the virus’ spread.

The CARES Act money doled out to schools is separate from lawmakers’ recent proposal.

Alcona Community Schools, Rogers City Area Schools, Hillman Community Schools, and Atlanta Community Schools have already spent the CARES Act money or been approved to receive the money, while Alpena Public Schools has yet to receive money. The district has until the end of summer to submit its request, Superintendent John VanWagoner said.

Rogers City was approved for about $98,000 to shore up the general fund for the 2020-21 fiscal year that begins July 1, according to Superintendent Nick Hein. The district’s Board of Education on Monday adopted a $5.2 million budget, which was balanced using $81,945 from the district’s savings.

Hillman is poised to receive $120,000 and Atlanta $110,000. Carl Seiter, superintendent of both districts, said his school boards plan to use the funding during the 2020-21 fiscal year.

“We’re focusing on socio-emotional learning and helping reduce the COVID-19 anxiety and mental stress that our kids have, among other things,” Seiter said.

Alcona received around $170,000, which was already spent on Chromebooks and internet connectivity, according to Superintendent Dan O’Connor.

“We used a chunk of it, as well, to compensate staff who were responsible for the continuous learning plan, especially those staff whose duties changed substantially due to remote learning,” he said.

He said many of the district’s teachers were crucial in getting paper packets together for students who lived in areas without internet or areas that struggled with internet speed.

VanWagoner said district officials want to wait until the U.S. Department of Education clarifies how the money can be spent. VanWagoner said district officials are considering using the funds to limit as many cuts as possible.

“That’s a lot of money that can be used, and we’ll take every dollar we can get with this financial crisis that we’re facing,” he said. “So, that $600,000 won’t cure all of our issues and our problems, but we’ll gladly keep that and any other funds we can get to support students in our district next year.”

The Finance Committee of the Alpena school board will get its first look at the 2020-21 budget today. The full board will consider the budget during a special meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday.

Posen and Onaway school officials could not be reached for comment.

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.

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