Officials with Forsyth County Schools have questioned the formula used to distribute federal coronavirus relief funding to school districts in recent months, raising concerns that the standard is unfair to the district and awards some systems with more funds than needed.
The Georgia Department of Education first received more than $411 million in federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in May 2020 to help mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After that first round, relief funding for schools increased dramatically throughout the nation. In the second round of funding, Georgia received more than $1.7 billion, and most recently, it received another $3.8 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March.
These funds have been allocated to school districts in the state based on the percentage of Title I funding they received in the prior year, meaning a school system who received 2% of the state’s total allocated Title I funds in Fiscal Year 2021 would have also received 2% of the state’s total coronavirus relief funds in March.
Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the largest federally funded educational program, provides extra funds to school districts to help close achievement gaps and increase equity within academics, especially supplying added resources and support to lower-income families.
Being in a more affluent community, less than 14% of Forsyth County Schools students qualify under Title I stipulations compared to the statewide average of 57%, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
This means that Title I funds received last year were allocated to districts where families have a greater need, leaving Forsyth County with about 0.41% of total state Title I funds. It also means, however, the district saw the same lack of coronavirus relief funding through the same Title I percentage-based formula required by federal law.
Despite being the sixth largest school district in Georgia, FCS received significantly fewer funds than the state’s other large districts, qualifying for $20.2 million of the $6 billion in total federal coronavirus relief funding provided to the state.
Atlanta Public Schools, which serves 140 fewer students than FCS, has received more than $309.8 million in total relief funding — a difference of more than $289.6 million from the allocation for FCS.
Meanwhile, Atlanta Public Schools received about $25 million more in Title I funding than FCS the previous year, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
FCS Chief Financial Officer Larry Hammel reached out to state education officials back in January to argue that using the Title I formula leads to an unfair imbalance of funds across the state’s districts and ask that they reconsider changing the allocation requirements in the future.
The decision, however, is not up to state or national education officials, according to the Georgia Department of Education. The requirements, written into law, would have to be changed through Congress.
Forsyth County Board of Education Chairwoman Kristin Morrissey said she has since spoken with lawmakers and hopes to see a change moving forward.
“Understandably, Title I schools have more families with lower incomes often that have greater need for access to things like technology or support for education,” Morrissey said. “We all understand and appreciate those needs.”
The FCS District 2 representative said, however, the Forsyth school system needs funding for coronavirus relief as much as any other large district in the state.
She pointed out FCS was one of only a few school districts to open their doors back up to families in August last year after they were forced to close in the spring. For nearly the past year, the district has offered both face-to-face and virtual options for students. Offering both from the start of the school year led to added costs for the district.
“We had to create a virtual curriculum for our K-5 virtual students in just a couple of months,” Morrissey said. “We had to be sure all our students had access to technology. We had to be sure our schools and buses were as safe as possible.”
On top of the cost, Morrissey said it was challenging for staff members both in the district office and in the county’s schools to put these programs together and implement them in such a short amount of time. Knowing how difficult the past year has been, she said she is proud of each of the systems’ staff members for “rising to the challenge” and making it all work.
The district has focused heavily on staff when deciding on ways to spend the allocated relief funding, using part of the first and second rounds to cover the cost of paying the county’s bus drivers during the shutdown last spring and part of the third round to provide staff members with added $1,000 bonuses.
Otherwise, the system has used the relief funds to cover a deficit in its budget created by austerity cuts in state funding, which Morrissey said also allowed them to avoid adding 12 furlough days for employees to the calendar. They also plan to use the funding for school maintenance and repairs and a summer school that will allow students to catch up on any learning lost during the pandemic.
Morrissey pointed out that the district also has to address the needs of families as Forsyth County continues to grow and develop.
“Forsyth County, unlike many systems, continues to grow year after year,” Morrissey said. “Last year, our enrollment continued to increase while the majority of school systems remained the same or experienced a lower number of students.”
To address this growth, the district opened a new elementary school, Poole’s Mill, just in the last year, and they plan to open Hendricks Middle and East Forsyth High Schools beginning in August. With the opening of new schools, along with other facilities such as the Academies of Creative Education and the Forsyth County Arts and Living Center, the district must budget for new staff members and vice principals.
Morrissey said that despite these needed measures, other metro Atlanta school districts have received anywhere from 6 to more than 15 times more in COVID-19 relief funding than FCS.
Dekalb County, the third largest district in the state, took in the largest percentage of funds, adding up to more than $479.8 million in total relief funding. Gwinnett County received a similar amount with $434.6 million in total funding, compared to Forsyth’s $20.2 million.
After each district discussed how they planned to spend the funding during a recent Large Districts meeting, Morrissey said she believes these districts simply received too much in funding.
While they plan for much of the funding to go toward programs and institutions impacted by COVID-19, she said some plan to also use the funding for other projects, including an effort to improve literacy rates, contribute to maintenance projects, pay for added field trips and award individual schools with grants for projects of their choice. Other districts are also offering added hiring and retention incentives for staff members.
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With the lack of relief funding, Morrissey said FCS cannot offer all of the programs to students and staff members that other districts in the area are able to at the moment.
She did say that they will continue to offer all they can through better-than-expected local tax digest funds, past bond revenues, ongoing SPLOST funds and support from the community through the Education Foundation.
“FCS will never regret opening and giving our families options for their education and social and emotional needs,” Morrissey said. “I just wish the CARES funds were disbursed more equitably as all students deserve support, and I wonder if all the hundreds of millions of dollars of CARES funds being distributed at this time are actually necessary for COVID relief.”