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Emanuel County Schools receives $24 million in CARES money

Emanuel County Schools, thanks to the announcement of the third round of CARES funding, has received a total of $25 million to go toward improving the district. The Chronicle met with Dr. Kevin Judy, superintendent of the district, on Monday to discuss the total amount being issued locally and how those funds will benefit the system.

The first round, valued at $1.6 million, was already drawn down this school year. It was primarily used for masks, sanitizer, gloves, and other necessities to combat coronavirus.

The second round, Dr. Judy said, has yet to be drawn down. Those $6.9 million will most likely be used on salaries to make sure Emanuel County Schools remains in sound fiscal shape. Some of the CARES 2 funds will finish purchasing technology needs.

Round 3 of the CARES Act will provide another $15.5 million to Emanuel County Schools. However, no guidelines have been issued in regard to how this particular round of money must be spent.

“I talked to the board at our last meeting about the $15.5 million. We’re in great shape; we’re going to end the year with $12 million, not including all the CARES money we’re receiving… But if you’ve been in this business long enough, you know what 2009, 2010, and 2011 were like where we lost about $24 million over a 10-year period because of the economy,” Dr. Judy explained. “While the CARES money is great to have for technology, textbooks, virtual programs, and things like that, we don’t need to blow the money. I asked the board with that $15.5 million to make sure there’s a plan in place.”

School districts have until 2023 to draw down the money. That process, in short, requires districts to specify how they plan to spend the funds and tack the plan to the appropriate budget. The districts must then submit that plan to the state for review. Should the plan fit the guidelines for CARES spending, the state will then release the funds.

Once the funds are in a district’s bank account, the district is relatively free to spend those dollars whenever they’d like—as long as the spending matches up with the plan submitted to the state. An audit process follows at the end of each school year to review the district’s spending.

CARES funds are not something the state will “take back” if not used, but districts will lose the money if it’s not spent by the deadline, which Judy believes is set for sometime in 2024.

How much a school system receives in CARES funding is determined by Title I allocations. Because Emanuel County Schools hovers around the 90 percent mark in regard to free and reduced population, the district received a considerable amount of CARES money. Wealthier counties, like Bryan County, received less.

“The CARES funds are a good thing because it helps everybody out, but it also means the number of families you have under the poverty line is also higher,” Dr. Judy said. “We’re received a lot of money, and that’s a great thing… But we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to spend it because there are limitations on what you can use it for. We’re going to be smart with it.”

Right now, that’s the ultimate goal: evaluating how the district is going to continue to capitalize on the money.

In addition to technology and health necessities, the system benefitted from CARES funds in that every employee received a $1,000 bonus. Back in January, the federal government passed money down to the state level. The Georgia Board of Education approved the allocation of the bonuses in March, and Emanuel County Schools was finally able to draw down the money the first week of April to hand out the bonuses.

“Every person in our school district put forth a lot of effort to make sure this year was successful,” Dr. Judy said, “so I felt it was important everyone in the school district got the $1,000 bonus, minus taxes, of course.”

The financial department at Emanuel County Schools, like all other departments, has worked diligently to ensure the system is in good standing. Although the district is in good shape financially, the CARES funding is a welcomed relief for Emanuel County Schools in that it will “free up” dollars that would have otherwise had to go toward SPLOST while simultaneously protecting the fund balance in the future.

Dr. Judy explained, “We can spend it on air conditioners. Think how many hundreds of filters we can buy now. That’s just one example. Another example would be… We can buy new computers, new Chromebooks, new textbooks, update servers, replace switches, update the wiring to the tech infrastructure. We can’t build something, like a new athletic facility or add wings to schools, but it does save us a considerable amount of money in SPLOST renovations and general fund purchases.”

He continued, commenting on the importance of protecting the general fund, “To me, with us being the No. 1 employer in the county, it’s vital we have a strong fund balance. There were some counties that had to furlough teachers. I always want us to have enough money that we don’t have to furlough teachers, and if we do for some reason, I hope it’s a small cut in pay because it affects who’s going out to eat, who’s going shopping—all those important things. It’s important we’re good financial stewards of this money to keep our county in a good financial situation. I feel like we’ve definitely been able to do that in the last few years.”

While 2023 may seem like a long way away, Dr. Judy is aware the next two years will move quickly. Still, he thinks the district will be able to obtain all the funds by the draw-down deadline and use them before the expiration date. The guidance for CARES 3 money hasn’t been publicized yet and with that round being the biggest pot of the money, the superintendent thinks the state will loosen the restrictions at some point.

Nonetheless, the $24 million will make an impact. Those inside the school system will likely physically see and enjoy the fruits of the CARES money before the general public will. Students and staff, for example, will immediately use the new tech, whatever that may be specifically, before the public does. However, taxpayer dollars can now be used more freely. For instance, Swainsboro Middle School is set to undergo renovations this summer, thanks to SPLOST. (Look for more details about this project in an upcoming edition of The Crossroads.)

In closing, Dr. Judy commended the efforts of Stacy Barber, Executive Director of Technology and Learning Support, Mollie Smith, Executive Director of Finance, Toni Terwilliger, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, along with the entire district as a whole for making Emanuel County Schools the success it is. The newly received funds, as well as the funds to be received in the future, will allow the district to step back, evaluate what needs exist and can be met within the parameters of the CARES program, and make improvements as needed.

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