‘An extended, lengthy street forward’: How Guilford County Faculties plans to spend greater than $300M in federal assist | Training

GREENSBORO — After a year dominated by decisions on reopening schools, Guilford County Schools leaders are now shifting focus to how to spend hundreds of millions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars to fuel the district’s recovery and tackle longstanding priorities.

At a school board meeting in June, Superintendent Sharon Contreras and her staff shared their plan for more than $300 million in federal relief. The plan, which was approved by the state, includes some funds that have already been spent, but many more dollars yet to be used.

The wide-ranging plan includes funding from all three federal COVID-19 relief bills enacted since the start of the pandemic. It spreads the money across five years, with the last of it to be spent in 2025, in line with federal rules.

The three biggest line items in the plan are building a new training center in East Greensboro, offering bonuses and other incentives to hire and keep staff and teachers, and improving ventilation in schools.

After going over the plan, Contreras asked board members to approve a budget amendment allocating not-yet-budgeted federal relief funds into broad budget categories. The measure passed 6-2 at the June 17 board meeting, with one member absent. That basically approves the money for use, but some of the planned spending will require more board votes later.

The federal relief money is a silver lining to a year which marked the biggest disruption to learning in the district’s history. Now, for the first time, the district has a laptop or tablet for every student. For the first time, district administrators plan to compensate every staff member the equivalent of at least $15 per hour.

As they continue to refine their plans and put them into action, school leaders are beginning the transition from attempting to survive a crisis to trying to recover from it.

“It’s going to take far beyond the lifespan of this grant and years to come for students to recover from the pandemic,” said Whitney Oakley, the district’s chief academic officer. “We have a long, long road ahead.”

“There’s a lot of work to do,” said Angie Henry, the district’s chief financial and operations officer, “but there’s a lot of kids who need it.”

Superintendent Sharon Contreras, right, visits Harper Key and Beckley Weaver on June 21 during Lego camp, one of the district’s summer programs, at Oak Ridge Elementary in Greensboro.

Guilford County Schools’ plan for the federal aid includes a couple of significant new construction projects: a new $35 million staff training and family education facility, and a $7.5 million renovation that would turn one of the district’s smaller elementary schools into a pre-K center.

Contreras said they plan to check both projects with the district’s auditors, to make sure they are allowable uses for the federal funds. If the auditors say no, they’ll find another use for the money.

The plan budgets almost $12.5 million for the training center project from now until next July and more than $22.5 million the next fiscal year. Money for renovating the early learning center would be spent by July 2022.

Neither project had been part of plans for the $300 million in school construction bonds that voters approved in 2020.

Oakley said training for staff was one of the recurring suggestions district leaders heard from the task force they convened to discuss how to best help the school system recover from the pandemic.

She and Henry said they don’t have anywhere they can get all the district’s principals and assistant principals together for training, so they are forced to rent facilities. They are looking for the new building to include a space where at least 400 people could meet together, and which could also be divided into smaller areas for less massive trainings. They also want it to include a model classroom.

This 2004 photo shows a GED class at Sedalia Elementary School. Guilford County Schools is looking to spend some of its federal COVID-19 relie…

Besides professional development, they also hope to offer education to students’ families, such as a General Educational Development diploma or English language classes.

The new building would allow the district to stop using its Laughlin Professional Development Center in Summerfield, Henry said. They also expect to combine the Washington Street and Franklin Street administrative offices.

The district had envisioned including such a training facility within a proposed new combined central office building, she said. However, that combined central office is far enough down the district’s facility master plan that it could be easily more than a decade before it rose to the top of the priority list.

Instead, they are looking at putting the training center on district land currently occupied by the former Hampton Elementary School. That building was one of three East Greensboro schools damaged by a tornado in 2018 and has been closed ever since.

School leaders also plan on putting the pre-K center in East Greensboro, renovating one of the smaller elementary schools to become a pre-K facility instead.

“We know that the earlier students start schooling experiences, the better,” Oakley said. “What we also know is we have a waitlist for our pre-K programs.”

She said that the district’s hope is that, with a dedicated pre-K center, it could eliminate those waitlists.

“Gillespie is a potential for this, but there are others as well, because there are several small schools,” Contreras said, referring to Gillespie Park Elementary. “It’s so small, it’s easy enough to make that school a pre-K site, but in East Greensboro there are several very small schools that could become pre-K sites.”

Contreras said there are something like four other schools within 2 or 3 miles of Gillespie Park that students could attend if they were to be reassigned.

Recruiting, retaining staff

School leaders plan to spend $32.8 million on incentives to help hire and keep teachers and staff, amid steep competition for some types of employees and a struggle to fill some jobs.

That’s the second largest single line item in the budget.

About $20 million, or $10 million per year for the next two years, is for bonuses to ensure that staff make the equivalent of $15 per hour.

Separately, the district expects to use an increase in funding from the county to give raises to school nutrition workers to $15 a per hour next year. An increase in afterschool program fees paid by parents will do the same for workers in that program.

Other lower-paid staff are receiving bonuses rather than a raise, using the one-time federal funds.

Contreras has said that county leaders have assured them that the county would take over paying for it after two years.

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Henry said bonuses to get staff to the equivalent of $15 per hour are also a critical part of the district’s pandemic learning loss recovery efforts. Schools can’t run if the maintenance workers, janitors and teacher assistants do not show up. Keeping some positions filled, like skilled trades maintenance workers, has grown more challenging, especially in the last six months or so.

“We are struggling every day to keep staff,” she said.

The other part of the line item, $12.8 million, is for money to encourage teachers to serve in high-needs subject areas and low-performing schools.

Math and science are both high-needs areas for the district, and administrators also sometimes struggle to fill some spots working with children with special needs.

“The only way we are going to get students where they need to be is by having high-quality teachers,” Oakley said of the incentives. “The teacher is the single most important factor in improving students outcomes.”

COVID-19 safety

Guilford County Schools leaders expect to spend about $26.2 million in federal relief funds on ventilation and air quality, hoping to limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools and take care of some longstanding building problems. That’s the third largest single line item in the plan.

Third grade teacher Sarah Carter squirts hand sanitizer into a student’s hand during a rest room break at Brooks Global Studies classroom in G…

Much of that would be spent on repairing or replacing windows and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, she said. For some rooms, where other ventilation methods aren’t possible, they may buy air purifiers, namely high efficiency particulate air filters.

In this September 2018 photo, Guilford County Schools HVAC repairman Lee Bridges sips a drink as he replaces a compressor on an air conditioni…

While “air quality” hasn’t necessarily been a buzzword, the district has been talking about some of these issues for a long time, Henry said. Staff have long complained that aging HVAC systems in some buildings aren’t working well. This money could help with those issues.

The district also expects to create outdoor learning spaces at schools. They also plan to continue spending on masks and supplies to sanitize and clean, as well as communications and outreach support related to reopening schools.

Computers and the CARES Act

Oak Ridge Elementary fourth grader Inez Cole works with her new laptop in Oak Ridge on March 24. Guilford County Schools spent millions in fed…

In 2020, school district and county officials used the first round of federal relief money to invest heavily in school technology. By late March of this year, the district had a laptop or tablet available for each student, a first in the district’s history.

According to a News & Record analysis of information provided by the school system, district leaders last year spent about $9.1 million in federal relief funds on devices for students. That federal aid came directly to the district through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. In the same year they also spent nearly $1.6 million in federal CARES Act relief money funneled through the state that were designated for student or staff computers and devices.

Combined with another $10 million that the county spent on laptops and tablets for the district, that indicates that more than half of the CARES Act money spent on the district in 2020 went to computers and devices. Other top CARES Act spending categories for the district in 2020 included school nutrition and online summer learning.

Employees organize laptops during a laptop distribution at Swann Middle School in Greensboro on Feb. 11. Federal COVID-19 relief funds helped …

The spending on computers was spurred by a crisis: not enough laptops and tablets for each student at a time when all district students had to learn remotely. Schools are reopened now and most students are expected to learn in person next year, but the district plans to continue to use about $2.6 million per year in federal relief funds toward paying for computer and tablet replacements through the end of June 2025.

Swann Middle School principal Dramaine Freeman said in February that before the arrival of the new laptops bought by the district, some students were stuck just using smart phones or sharing a computer with a sibling, which could force them to miss instruction.

Even with classes still online at the time, Freeman was already excited about the broader benefits to students of having the devices, years into the future.

“It opens up the door to stay up-to-date with anything changing in our world,” he said.

Board member reactions

Most school board members were supportive of the new COVID-19 federal relief spending plan as outlined at the June 17 meeting, but a few voiced some concerns or frustrations.

Board member Linda Welborn said she wanted more information about the past impact of recent professional development before being comfortable budgeting for what was in the plan.

“We are doing all this professional development and there’s no accountability for it,” she said.

Contreras disagreed, saying the district is tracking and creating reports on the various professional development trainings they do and the impacts they have.

School board member Deborah Napper defended the importance of staff professional development for the district, saying that as a nurse she understands that professional learning is necessary for staff not to fall behind, let alone make progress.

Board member Bettye Jenkins praised the proposed new staff training center at the Hampton site and the proposed early learning center as positive benefits for her district and also said the staff bonuses were highly needed.

“I think this is a great plan,” she said.

Board member T. Dianne Bellamy-Small also endorsed the idea of the training center, but said during the meeting that she opposed the proposed location. In response to a News & Record question, asking her why she was opposed, she sent a series of documents related to the presence of asbestos in the old building as well as the presence of waste materials from an old landfill.

Contreras had, a couple of years ago, pointed to the fact that Hampton, which was built in 1964, is next to a former landfill site as among her reasons for wanting to close the tornado-damaged building rather than try to repair it and bring back elementary students.

Asked about the landfill, Henry said that the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is monitoring a small corner of the Hampton site, but that’s not expected to cause any hazard or concern to health and safety for the prospective training center.

Despite her reservations about the Hampton site, Bellamy-Small voted for the budget amendment allocating the money for the federal relief plan.

“We are trying to recover from 14 months of virtual and remote and the whole gamut of trying to still educate children without somebody dying,” she said. “So it makes sense for us to invest this money, since we have this opportunity.”

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.


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