Confusion creating a hold up in distribution of federal CARES money to schools

  • Republican Frank Edelblut at a Concord Monitor editorial board. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 5/28/2020 1:57:01 PM

New Hampshire schools are in line to receive $37 million in federal assistance this year, part of the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package passed by Congress in March.

But a national fight over how much of that money should go to private schools has made getting those funds out the door tricky. Now, some school administrators have voiced frustration about a protracted delay.

“It’s been very frustrating trying to understand how we access the CARES funds,” said Manchester Superintendent John Goldheart in a conference call with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on May 19. “I don’t get a lot of answers from our state department.”

A week and a half later, none of the state’s funds had been distributed to schools, Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in an interview Wednesday. That’s because the state Department of Education is still waiting for formal direction from the federal government on how to do that.

Absent that direction, none of the money can responsibly leave, Edelblut said.

“It’s a question of, ‘what is the formula for allocation of those funds,’” said Edelblut at the Executive Council meeting last week. “And we continue to wait for definitive guidance from the federal government in terms of how that allocation would be made.”

At issue is a technical distinction with broad implications. Last month, the federal Department of Education issued guidance for how to spend the funds, directing states on how to provide “equitable services” to private schools that operate in a certain school district.

Following the guidance would mean that private schools would receive more money for equitable services than usual. Whereas normally under Title I, the money for private school services is only distributed based on the number of low income private school students in each public school district, the new guidance counts all enrollments to private schools – low income or otherwise. 

That means more private school students are counted and more money that would have gone to public schools is directed to private schools.

The guidance drew the ire of public education advocates, and Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has stepped back somewhat in recent weeks. Now, the education department says it will issue a formal rule and seek public comment in the coming weeks.

But as the weeks carry on, the delay in debating and implementing that rule is causing a delay in New Hampshire. 

In Manchester, Goldheart says the limbo has been tough for Queen City schools, which are entering into the next budget process and which need to know how much in federal allotment should be set aside for the city’s private schools.

“It’s been frustrating because we would like to get moving on that,” he said.

Speaking on the call with Goldheart, Sen. Shaheen agreed that the process was “very frustrating.”

“The funding in the CARES Act has been slow to go out,” she said, adding that her office would be pushing the state Department of Education to get the money released.

Meanwhile, Shaheen said, a future round of funding from Congress could be on the way.

“The sooner we can get this next package of legislation done, the more it will provide some certainty for school boards, for town councils, for selectmen on what they need to budget and how to support schools.”

Other school districts are keeping an eye on the debate.

In SAU 67, which covers schools in Bow and Dunbarton, the formula is only affording the towns about $63,000 and $14,000, respectively, according to Business Administrator Duane Ford. But that money could help the school reimburse itself for mounting costs like transportation services.

For his part, Edelblut says the department is waiting for the final rule before it sends money to schools. Doing that protects the state against the possibility of a “clawback” situation in which money given out to schools would have to be returned and reallocated, he said.

But there are some states that have gone ahead and begun distributing the funds under the old formula. That includes Maine and Pennsylvania, which have bucked the federal Department of Education in favor of the old formula. Others, like Texas, are moving ahead but following the new guidelines issued by the Department of Education.

“There are some states who have followed one way and some states who have followed another formula,” Edelblut acknowledged. New Hampshire, though, is going to wait, he added.

Speaking Wednesday, Edelblut said that the state Department of Education does not have a preference over how the money is distributed. “We just want to follow the law,” he said.  

For now, school districts have been encouraged to prepare the materials they need to receive the funds as they wait.

“They have stuff that they need to work on to get to the money,” said Edelblut. “So until they do that they can’t access the money anyways. So we’re doing parallel processing here.”

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