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RSS in talks about using federal relief money to provide faculty stipends

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools is looking for ways to use federal relief funding to offset the extra work being taken on by its teachers.

With a substitute fill rate hovering around 50%, teachers are having to cover additional classes and the district began sending central office staff into schools to cover classes two weeks ago.

The issue of teacher burnout has been raised several times at recent meetings of the RSS Board of Education by member Brian Hightower, who has pushed for the district to find a way to use some of the tens of millions of dollars the district has received in federal COVID-19 relief to compensate teachers taking on extra work to keep schools afloat.

The district has been awarded about $70 million in federal relief since the pandemic began. Notably, it received $66 million through the two latest installments of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).

The district created a budget for the funding it submitted to the state which included a number of projects that addressed things from learning loss to upgrades to HVAC systems. The funding was allocated based on rules from the federal government.

“It all boils down to ‘this has to be used in one of three ways,’ but to me we are directly dealing with COVID and it ought to be legal to incentivize going above and beyond,” Hightower told the Post. “Nobody comes out here and works for free.”

Hightower said the pressure on staff affects the education students get as well because teachers are tired after putting in extra time to get by and there would be more learning loss if teachers were not covering classes.

District Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon said the rules have not changed, with the key issue being the funding must be spent to protect from and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Herndon said she has never seen rules for federal funding change after it has been distributed, but we are living in unusual times.

“I wouldn’t say never, but I’ve never experienced that,” Herndon said.

However, the district is analyzing the connection between its COVID-19 response and the extra responsibilities taken on by its employees.

“Using ESSER money to support any kind of incremental cost as it relates to COVID is allowable,” Herndon said. “So if we can make the case that a teacher is picking up an additional class to teach because of the increased number of quarantines, absences, vacancies related to the pandemic, then I’m comfortable that we could use ESSER funds to support a stipend for those extra duties.”

Herndon said she cannot say, broadly, the district can use ESSER money to pay its people, but as long as it can connect a need to the response to COVID-19 it should be an allowable expense.

“It’s really a case-by-case analysis of what we are trying to achieve and why we have the need to pay our staff differently or more,” Herndon said.

The district is in talks with the state to determine what would be an allowable expense, and if it amends the budget for the federal money it will have to submit the changes to the state for approval.

Herndon said many employees are taking on additional responsibilities in the district, both teaching and non-teaching.

At the end of last year, several other districts tried to fund bonuses with ESSER funding and were denied, but some are now contemplating additional compensation due to the pandemic like RSS.

“I do believe people would have a hard time denying the fact that in public education we are asking people to do more than their normal assignment in order to navigate the pandemic,” she said.

The district administration plans to have more details by the next board meeting on Monday.

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