Smith: use stimulus funds with caution

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — The nearly $1.6 million in funding from the federal stimulus package could save jobs in the Carroll County Public School System, and educators remain hopeful that the government will allow more flexibility in the recovery effort.

Superintendent Greg Smith presented information to the Carroll School Board Tuesday from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the related State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. He said the money set aside for Carroll would mainly go towards specific categories like modernization, renovation or repair of school buildings; adult education; career and technical education; and special education.

Communications from Recovery.gov in the school board's packet does say that stimulus funds may be used "to pay salaries to avoid having to lay off teachers and other school employees."

Even so, the school system will have to use great care to ensure money from the stimulus package in fiscal years 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 doesn't create any shortfalls in future budgets, Smith said.

"We are learning every day there is nuances to this program and that is certainly complicating much of what we think and much of what we do in terms of the appropriate use for the 2009-10 budget," he said.

The stimulus monies involved here — $365.2 million to Virginia, out of a total of $53.6 billion nationwide — amount to a one-time infusion, Smith said. These funds should go to save jobs and other essential services in the schools, to improve student achievement and to support educational programs that work.

Instructions from the government tell localities to spend the money along the lines of existing federal programs in education.

"It is not a lump-sum funding..." Smith stressed. "It is reimbursement funding. We would have to expend those funds and then ask they be reimbursed to the locality. That is something that is very common with federal funds and with federal programs."

While its not unusual, educators didn't expect the money to come this way, he added. "This is not the form that we had hoped, but it is certainly something we can work with."

The goal is indeed to reduce any job or program losses, Smith said.

"But in the same breath, I say that we have to be very cautious because these are one-time funds only," he told the school board. The one-time nature of the funds means that educators have to be prudent not to cause the schools to have a "deficit in funds in future budgets and that we would have to compensate for these costs in future budgets."

He described that as a "very delicate balance."

Smith directed the school board's attention to the fourth page of the Recovery.gov memo, which outlined the use of these funds.

This section spelled out the federal legislation that would guide the school systems' spending of stimulus funds.

This included such lengthy titles as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provides for modernizations of schools; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act; or the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006.

The accountability standards built into the stimulus package are rigorous, but that's something that the school system is used to in working with federal programs, Smith said.

The Carroll superintendent knows through his conversations with state Board of Education officials that Virginia has asked for a waiver in order to have more flexibility in what the stimulus money can go toward.

"There might be good news to be had that would give us even greater flexibility to really utilize these funds to benefit the school system," Smith said. "That is our hope and we're keeping our fingers crossed." 

So if the guidelines remained as they are now, Carroll might be able to use the stimulus funds to save the job of a special education teacher instead of an English teacher? School Board Chairman Reginald Gardner asked.

That's one valid interpretation, Smith answered. However, there is a possibility that the schools could use a portion of the funds more generally.

Carroll schools will have to pay the expenses out of its own pool of funds and then seek reimbursement, the superintendent said. The school system will have to remain cautious and make sure it doesn't become overextended.

"It's something like this: if we had the money we wouldn't need the money," Smith said. "We have to be careful."