Jul. 23—NORWALK — Problem, noun, a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
The Norwalk City Schools faced a situation the past couple of weeks concerning free school supplies to students in grades K-8.
It appeared to be a problem, but is there such a thing as a good problem?
For the last 13 years a group of loyal school supporters have run a Stuff the Bus program, collecting free schools supplies for students in grades K-8 in the Norwalk city and Catholic schools.
During the middle of this year's Stuff the Bus campaign, members of the Norwalk City Schools board of education voted to use ESSER money to buy supplies for every student in grades K-8.
What Are ESSER Funds?
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund is a federal program, approved by the Department of Education as part of a larger COVID-19 aid plan. From keeping schools open to investing in infrastructure, this fund provides emergency financial assistance for a variety of necessary projects to school districts across the country. The program is available to K-12 institutions until Sept. 30, 2024.
The schools have about $5 million in ESSER funds to spend in the next two years and the rules of how to spend the money are very specific.
Norwalk City Schools Superintendent Brad Cooley said the money originally was to be used to upgrade the HVAC systems and improve the learning spaces because of COVID.
"Improve the environment for learning," he said.
Nothing has been voted on, but school officials are confident ESSER funds will be used again for school supplies.
So what does this do for Stuff the Bus? The resounding reply was simple — the more the better.
In a letter to the editor to the Norwalk Reflector Friday, Sharlene White, Stuff the Bus chairman, said the program is alive and well.
"We will be providing book bags and school supplies to all 585 students who registered with the Stuff the Bus program," White wrote.
"Next year, we will continue as we have in previous years. Even if Norwalk City Schools does decide to provide free school supplies for the 2023-24 school year to kindergarten through eighth grade, we will still provide supplies to Norwalk City Schools high school students and all of Norwalk Catholic School students who register with Stuff the Bus.
"Stuff the Bus is in its 13th year of operation, and has grown to be an important asset to this community. Virginia Poling, Judy Sommers, and Reta Stark have put a huge amount of effort in this over the years to develop such an awesome program. We plan to ensure it continues in the years to come."
Cooley and members of the board said the two should be able to work together for the benefit of the children.
"I think all things are good," Cooley said. "The blessing in Norwalk is there are a lot of groups that are there to help out."
Board member Alison Crawford said the $5.3 million in ESSER funds is only there for two years and you "use it or lose it."
She said the money can only be spent on certain items, and can not be used to run the district.
"The list is very small where we can use it," she said. "We don't want to lose it ... find ways to use it. There is no ill intent. I would hope it doesn't have to be either, or.
"We want Stuff the Bus forever. We only have this money for two years ... we want to keep going with it (Stuff the Bus).
"We are trying something good and we don't want to hurt something great."
"This is in addition to what you have been doing," board president Lisa Wick said.
Treasurer Joyce Dupont agreed with Wick.
"We want to help every one of our families," Dupont said. "It seems like we can work together."
Teacher Amy Krichbaum said the added supplies will help "bridge the gap" when supplies start to run out in the middle of the year.
Judy Sommers, who 13 years ago started the Stuff the Bus project with Reta Stark and Virginia Poling, said bottom line it is about the children.
"We started very small with no money. No nothing," she said. "Whatever we collected we gave out to people.
"With COVID and everything happening nobody knows what is next for Stuff the Bus, she said. "We will continue to make the best for the kids. That is the bottom line. The school has been extremely supportive of our efforts this year. It helps them to have kids prepared for the year. Both Norwalk Catholic and Norwalk City Schools have been on board with us."
While the public schools have ESSER money to use, Norwalk Catholic doesn't have those funds to help out its students.
"I have been working with that team and am so excited that they are going to be able to help out our students this year and years to come," Norwalk Catholic School President Martin Linder said. "Stuff the bus has been around over a decade ... it has been a godsend to all of our families. They are excited about our continued partnership and I know our families are.
"There are so many wonderful things (I can say) about Stuff the Bus."
The bookbags will be delivered to the school and will then be handed out to the students the first week of school, Linder said.
How many Norwalk Catholic students participate?
"I think the number they last gave me was about 50 in K-12," Linder said. "They also help our preschool and KinderCasa."
Linder said every little bit helps.
"We all feel it nowadays with the cost of everything going up," he said. "The families who make the decision to come to our schools sacrifice a lot. Anything we can do to help is good."