Maine schools to fund summer programs, safe reopenings with coronavirus relief funds

Rachel Ohm, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read

Apr. 7—Maine school districts receiving millions of dollars in additional federal coronavirus relief will use the money to address learning loss, summer programming and continued efforts to safely reopen schools.

Portland Public Schools, the state's largest district, is expecting to receive close to $18 million from the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Biden last month. Some of the money will go to funding summer programming over the next two years as well as the needs associated with increasing in-person learning, said Superintendent Xavier Botana at a school board meeting Tuesday night.

"We need to ensure we set aside and commit to supporting our staff and community with the necessary resources to provide expanded access to in-person learning next fall and beyond," Botana said. "We don't know how much that will be but we need to be ready to commit the resources to that important work so all students can attend school five days per week in a manner that is consistent with our health and safety requirements."

While the district is currently using $1.3 million in relief funding to offset custodial expenditures, Botana cautioned against relying on federal funds to offset ongoing costs in next year's budget as that would create an unstable situation in the future after federal funding expires. Instead, Botana said he is hoping to engage the community in a "participatory budgeting" process to determine how the remainder of the federal funds should be used.

Participatory budgeting is a process that allows community members to decide how to spend part of a public budget. "Over 300 participatory budgeting efforts are currently in place around the country, most at the municipal level and mostly focused on infrastructure and capital improvement," Botana said. "We have what I would call a once in a lifetime opportunity to carry that idea to our work, asking our students, our teachers, our staff, our parents and our partners to think about what we can do that improves our ability to deliver on the (strategic plan the) Portland Promise in a sustainable way."

Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for the district, said in an email Wednesday the "participatory budgeting" proposal will be subject to further discussions with the board. The timeline for engaging with the proposal will be after the 2021-2022 school budget is passed and the district knows what it needs to set aside to start the school year with students in person.

There are guidelines around how districts can spend the American Rescue Plan funds. Maine is receiving $411 million total for K-12 schools and must allocate at least 90 percent of that to local districts. Allocations are made based on the amount of federal Title I funding districts received in 2020 and are available for use through Sept. 30, 2023.

Districts must reserve at least 20 percent of the funds to address "learning loss" and ensure those responses address students' social, emotional and academic needs and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student groups.

Some school district leaders said while it is still early in the process of determining how they will spend the money, things they are looking at include summer programming and additional staff to keep class sizes small and enable them to increase in-person learning.

In Gorham, where the school district does not typically offer summer programming other than extended services for students in special education, Superintendent Heather Perry said they are planning a six-week program that will focus on math, reading and the social and emotional well-being of students in the morning and will be followed by a collaboration with the town's recreation department in the afternoon.

The district will also be purchasing software licenses for an online reading and math program that will be available to all families with K-8 students over the summer. Wireless internet upgrades at the middle and high schools and COVID-related positions such as building substitutes and clinic aids for school nurses are also part of the district's plans for spending their estimated allocation of $1.7 million.

In Westbrook, Superintendent Peter Lancia said the district is still planning but general areas where they will look to spend the funds include temporary staff to support student needs and reduce class sizes in the fall, student support services, personal protective equipment and cleaning. Westbrook is expecting to receive about $7.6 million.

While students have had numerous interruptions over the last year, Lancia said most have done a "terrific job" with hybrid learning. Still, he said it will be a challenge to get back into the routine of traditional school.

"I think it's a good thing a good chunk of that is reserved for (addressing learning loss)," Lancia said. "Really the majority of what that will be is looking at intervention programming and temporary staffing to reduce class sizes and help kids recover from any academic losses as well as meet the social and emotional needs with coming back to school."

Like Portland, Lancia said his district is also trying to be mindful of the restrictions around the federal funding. "We're really thankful we have that but we're also mindful that it's temporary money and we're trying to be very careful with what we use that for," he said. "We don't want to create a fiscal cliff in a couple of years where we place a lot of general fund projects, people or materials into it that would then have to come back into the local budget."