The Sitka School Board unanimously adopted the recommendations on this list. (SSD image)

The Sitka School Board approved almost $900,000 in CARES Act relief spending when it met last Wednesday (5-5-21), on everything from additional staff to copy machines.

The board’s only hesitation came from knowing that the money was not yet in the bank.

The first pulse of CARES Act relief came into the Sitka District around this time last year, and was spent on supplies and equipment needed to keep the schools functioning as they transitioned to remote learning. The second round — about $500,000 — rolled in last December, and most of that money has also been committed or spent on supporting district operations during the pandemic.

The third round of CARES Act relief could be the biggest pot of all, anywhere between $1 million and $1.4 million, and is the most open-ended of the three rounds so far. The only problems are that the actual amount is unknown, and the actual money isn’t here yet.

Board members Paul Rioux and Andrew Hames were concerned about spending money that wasn’t there. This is Hames, putting the question to interim superintendent John Holst:

Hames – So to follow up with what Paul was saying, we’re committing to spending money we don’t have yet? Is that right?

Holst – Correct. Well, what we’re suggesting is planning for the money, so that when it gets here, I mean, you won’t have another meeting between the end of June and August sometime.

Hames – And if for some reason something went haywire and we don’t get what we’re expecting, we’re going to have to revisit these, and revisit them?

Holst – Yes.

Holst believes the timing will work out, and that the CARES Act funding will arrive before most of it is needed at the beginning of the next school year.

Included in the district’s CARES Act third round spending are three staff positions at $100,000 each: A district tech coach, a social worker at Pacific High, and an elementary learning support coordinator. The tech coach and counselor would move to the operating budget in 2022, and the elementary position would disappear.

Also included in the CARES Act pot is $150,000 for 10 additional Americorps volunteers in the district next year, on top of the five already in the district operating budget. Holst said Americorps were the greatest bargains in the district workforce, especially with teaching staff stretched thin, and the talent pool was stronger because of the circumstances of the pandemic.

“This year in particular the crop of people was extraordinary,” said Holst. “The Peace Corps was cancelled this year; there’s no one in the Peace Corps. These were the people who were going to apply for Peace Corps, and they applied for Americorps instead.”

Also on the list is $75,000 for the district’s summer intervention program, designed to bring students back up to speed after a year of dramatically reduced classroom time.

Students are being referred to summer school by their teachers. Board member Blossom Teal-Olsen asked what the district was doing to connect with indigenous students and families.

Teal-Olsen — I know that the teachers care, and I know that they’ve referred students,” said Teal-Olsen, “but with the historic baseline of families who may not trust the families or the district, I think it would be really beneficial on our part to reach out to the Tribe and see if they can add additional support on giving out information on what the program is about before it officially launches.

Holst – Sure. We can certainly do that. It’s a good suggestion, actually. I’m not sure why we didn’t think about that.

The rest of the list was equipment: $220,000 to upgrade the district’s phone system, other network equipment, and copiers — all of which would produce significant savings for the district down the road. The upgraded phone system, according to Holst, would save the district $90,000 a year.

Board member Paul Rioux said he initially failed to see how a new copier would help address learning loss over the last year, but he was coming around.

“Anything that we can save is going to help the staff that’s in place address the learning loss,” said Rioux. “You know, I had to do a couple of mental circles in my head to come back around. Obviously, a copier, or the phone system, does have an effect. I gave it a lot of thought, and read the memo from Dr. Johnson (Commissioner of Education Dr. Michael Johnson), and I think this is a good investment, I think the savings are going to support students — in a roundabout way.”

The board approved the list of CARES Act spending unanimously. The total came to $890,000.