MONTPELIER — School officials are fishing for ideas about how to spend more than $3.1 million in pandemic-related funding the Montpelier Roxbury Public School District is set to receive during the next year.
Superintendent Libby Bonesteel kicked off the “brainstorming” phase of a process with a virtual community forum last week and an editable online document can now be found at www.mrpsvt.org/covid-19-relief-funds along with other information about money soon to be flowing the district’s way.
Bonesteel encourages folks to add their ideas to the document by the end of the month as part of a process to build the district’s application to spend the second and third waves of money — nearly $3.15 million — it will receive from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.
Initial ESSER funding the district received during the height of the pandemic covered emergency expenses, but Bonesteel has high hopes for what has been dubbed ESSER II and more recently ESSER III.
“It’s an opportunity,” she said of the nonrecurring emergency aid the district has been told it will receive.
The big question from Bonesteel’s perspective?
“How can we take this money and use it to our advantage the most?” she asked, adding: “We really want to be thinking strategically.”
When it comes to “one-time money,” Bonesteel said the district will want to “think twice” regarding positions that would eventually have to be absorbed in the school budget and computer software with recurring expenses. She said construction projects must fit within federal parameters. While those guidelines are still being developed for the $2.2 million the district is slated to receive under ESSER III, the $935,000 it expects to get under ESSER II must demonstrate a direct link to the district’s COVID “recovery” plan.
Bonesteel said there is good news there and not just because fresh data suggests the district’s aggressive reopening plan has helped avoid a perceptible dip in academic performance.
“I don’t think we need to recover a lot,” she said, crediting a plan that, with isolated interruptions, has featured 5 days a week of in-person instruction for any K-8 students who want it since September.
According to Bonesteel, recent data involving students at Main Street Middle School supports the notion the district may be better positioned than many to invest the money it will receive in innovative ways.
“We’re taking all the community feedback we can get right now,” Bonesteel told the more than 2 dozen residents who attended last week’s forum.
During the forum, Bonesteel fielded a virtual pitch from a couple of high school baseball players, who took time out from practice to suggest an upgrade to the baseball field.
The tennis courts and the track at the high school were suggested as possible projects as well, as was a “community athletic complex” and investing in energy efficiency in ways that would be good for the environment and produce durable savings.
Ideas floated during the forum ranged from investing in a 2-year mental health position and a “maker space” at the middle school, to expanding after-school and summer recreational opportunities and outdoor learning programs.
Bonesteel said some of the money would be spent on yet-to-be-identified construction projects, though the list of possibilities includes addressing shortcomings with the kitchen and cafeteria at Main Street Middle School, as well as that school’s science lab and playground.
Bonesteel explained a project that had bubbled to the top of the district’s facilities to-do list could be a clear way to make use of more than $1 million in ESSER money. While replacing more than 300 windows at Union Elementary School and Main Street Middle School may not sound exciting, the project the district had planned to complete through the course of several years clearly qualifies for the one-time money. If the district spends ESSER money on windows, the money it had planned to spend on that project would be freed up and could be used to finance projects like upgrading a baseball field or a science lab that might not meet the federal guidelines.
Though the application deadline isn’t until November, Bonesteel said the district hopes to have a plan for how to spend the money in place by June 30. In order to hit the deadline, she said community feedback will be accepted at least through the end of the month.
Bonesteel said ideas would be prioritized, the list narrowed and cost estimates obtained in an effort to submit the application to the state Agency of Education by July 1. The district will have until Sept. 30, 2023, to spend the $935,000 it will receive under ESSER II and until Sept. 30, 2024, to spend the $2.2 million in ESSER III money.
In an attempt to help focus feedback, the editable online document posted on the district’s website poses five questions.
The first seeks input on summer programming. The second asks for thoughts on innovative programming that could be launched with an infusion of new money. The third asks residents to identify “gaping holes” in programming exposed by the pandemic.
The final two questions shifts the focus from programming to facilities. The first asks for general suggestions on what major renovations — like the window project — could be considered health- and safety-related. The other requests suggestions with respect to needed facilities upgrades.
Those with ideas are encouraged to share them.