HALLOWELL — After coronavirus relief funds were used to cover part of the cost of outdoor lights at the Hall-Dale Middle and High School sports fields, Regional School Unit 2 school board members began asking where money was being spent across the district.

School board members didn’t know sports-related items could be purchased with coronavirus relief funds, raising questions among the board members of where the money was being spent at the other RSU 2 schools, according to emails obtained by the Kennebec Journal through a public records request. 

Superintendent Tonya Arnold told the school board in a Jan. 6 email that the Maine Department of Education “approved the project as a COVID-related need based on the need to be able to allow outdoor events, such as graduation or extended time for athletic activities to meet the physical distancing requirements.” The outdoor lights also were partially paid for with money from the Simmons Fund, which is exclusively for Hall-Dale schools’ sports-related purchases.

The question about paying for the lights using coronavirus relief funds were among several queries that school board members have made in recent months about how the money has been spent and where. The emails underscore that school officials still don’t have all of those answers, with the superintendent saying it would take a dedicated person days of intense investigation.

The newspaper obtained about 30 emails from the school district through a Freedom of Access Act request, after narrowing a request to understand how the coronavirus relief money was spent, how personal protective equipment was distributed throughout the district and other discussion related to the coronavirus. Arnold said the newspaper’s original request for such information was an “onerous burden” to the staff.

Kathryn Marseglia, a school board member from Dresden, asked Arnold on two different occasions — Jan. 7 and Jan. 25 — where the money was spent and how. On Jan. 7, she asked about Dresden Elementary School and how other administrations in the area “prioritized their project requests.”

“The perception is Hall-Dale received preferential treatment in obtaining funds for this type of project,” Marseglia wrote. “As they say, ‘Perception is reality.’ Perhaps administrators could communicate to their community what projects they prioritized and received funds to allay this perception.” 

In response to Marseglia’s Jan. 7 email, Arnold offered a list of items purchased for Dresden Elementary School, as of Jan. 6, without costs included. According to Arnold, Dresden used coronavirus relief funds to pay for:

• a new ventilation system

• hand-free fixtures for the bathrooms 

• drinking fountains with bottle fills

• fans, air purifiers, sanitation supplies, plexiglass, and personal protective equipment

• a shed, tents and resources/supplies for increasing outdoor education

• additional custodial, substitute, tutoring and nurse support

• technology devices, internet hotspots/connect and software along with instructional supplies to support remote learning

• social and emotional learning professional development 

Purchases made with coronavirus relief funds must meet certain federal criteria — mostly related to classroom challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic — and be approved by the Maine Department of Education. In a Jan. 29 email to the school board, Arnold stressed that coronavirus relief money is not a “replacement fund” and must “address specific challenges incurred because of COVID-19,” per state guidelines.

Deveaux said the outdoor lighting was approved through coronavirus relief funds.

Nicole Denis, the federal fiscal coordinator for the Maine Department of Education, told the Kennebec Journal that her agency accepted RSU 2’s rationale that the lights were an appropriate use of the relief funding because of the ability to have activities such as band practice, chorus, theater, academic exhibitions and graduations outside that would traditionally be held inside.

TRACKING QUESTIONS

Marseglia followed her initial email with another Jan. 25, sent after Arnold told board members they would receive “detailed information” about the next round of coronavirus funding at the board’s Finance Committee meeting. Marseglia asked whether the additional information would include the dollar figures spent for each category for each school, such as athletic department supplies and larger items such as stadium lights.

In response, Arnold sent an email Jan. 27 that went to the entire RSU 2 school board. She wrote “there is not automated tracking that can provide a quick total by school for the (coronavirus relief fund) grant purchases. There are 4-5 inches of paper invoices for one month worth of expenses being compiled for just one reimbursement request from the DOE.” 

According to the state, as of April 9, RSU 2 still had $2.91 million unspent from a total allocation of $4.88 million in coronavirus relief funds. 

“A detailed trial balance could easily be provided by the school to the school board,” Kelli Deveaux, Maine Department of Education spokesperson, said April 9.

Deveaux added, as Arnold said, there can be “hundreds of pages of backups.”

Russ Hughes, an RSU 2 school board member from Richmond, in a Jan. 27 email also asked for a total amount of coronavirus relief money spent by the district. He also asked for clarification of what was being paid for with COVID-19 funds and from the Simmons Fund.

Jon Hamann, RSU 2 school board chairperson and member from Monmouth, responded to the questions from Hughes and Marseglia by telling them to “focus on the ’21-’22 fiscal year budget.” 

“The purpose of this meeting is not to audit the CARES Act expenditures from the current year,” he wrote on Jan. 27. “(Redacted) is currently working unsustainable hours just to process everything on (redacted) plate, which includes significant reporting for all of these grants. To provide the kind of breakdowns I have heard requested would require a dedicated person for dozens of hours.” 

But in the emails obtained by the Kennebec Journal, a Jan. 28 message from Arnold references a position made possible by coronavirus relief funds that would “support overflow from each of the finance office staff to reduce overtime (and stress) and also serve as a receptionist.” 

According to the emails, the position was not yet filled by the end of January, but board member Dawn Gallagher asked if the board could help advertise the position. 

DISTRICT SPENDING 

Though each RSU 2 school has its own list of items to be purchased with COVID-19 relief funds, some expenses were applied uniformly across the district. That includes funding for additional substitute support, instructional supplies to support remote learning, supplies for individual use, tutoring support, and social and emotional professional development. 

School principals were able to suggest their own items. 

“No school’s request was prioritized over other schools,” Arnold said in a Jan. 27 email to the school board. “All requests that met the DOE criteria and the deadlines for documentation to submit with the application were included and approved by the DOE.” 

She referenced the bikes and outdoor equipment in the email and said, “these two items are examples of what looks unequal on one list, might actually be creating equity.” 

For instance, Richmond Middle and High School applied for and received a private grant at the beginning of the school year in order to purchase bikes for its students.  

In response to the emails from Hughes and Marseglia, Arnold said the focus “needs to be on the submission of the DOE reporting to receive reimbursements, ’20-’21 budget preparation, and on our process of preparing for the new ESSER 2 application.” 

Meeting the minimum needs of each of those projects will in themselves, take working extreme hours of overtime, which is not sustainable as Jon (Hamann) mentioned,” she said.  

Arnold was referring to RSU 2’s 2021-2022 budget, which at the time of the email communications, had a 4.01% spending increase, even with coronavirus funds available. That has since been reduced to a 2.99% increase, but towns are still struggling with how residents will pay the tax hike and Dresden considering leaving the school district. Richmond residents will vote June 8 on whether or not to withdraw from RSU 2.

The school board said the steep rise in the budget is largely due to salaries with contractual increases and costs beyond the district’s control, including the expense of maintaining school buildings.

“The spending in this school year’s budget continues to be on budget,” Arnold said Friday to the Kennebec Journal. “As we have shared before, costs have increased substantially this year due to the impact of COVID-19 and the grant funds have been only allowed to be used for new unbudgeted needs that related to COVID-19 or meeting the safety guidelines and unanticipated student needs.”

The school board will meet via Zoom at 6 p.m. Thursday to approve its 2021-2022 spending plan and the individual town assessments.

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