Editorial: Federal funding can have major impact on public education

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 19, 2021

The sum of grant and federal relief money is sort of mind-boggling.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools expects to receive a total of $70 million in federal relief funding in addition to $26.3 million from a federal grant received one year ago.

That’s about $10.68 million more than the city of Salisbury’s budget, a little more than half of the county’s budget and enough money to make a major impact on public education in Rowan County.

As Superintendent Tony Watlington said in a story published last week (“RSS chief talks federal relief money, employee pay”), learning loss during COVID-19 has been extreme and Rowan-Salisbury Schools needs every resource possible to fix that. It needs to be intentional about how to address learning loss, too, Watlington said.

The good news is that Rowan-Salisbury Schools is a “renewal” district. That doesn’t mean it can spend federal funding in different ways than everybody else, but it does mean educators in the district have experience thinking about innovative methods of public education unconstrained by traditional rules. The infrastructure RSS created for renewal can easily be used to think about which gadgets and funding initiatives will be most useful in recovering from pandemic-induced learning loss.

Watlington is right that the hard work of staff — educators and otherwise — needs to be recognized through the use of bonus money. But RSS has talked for years about facility problems. The school board already agreed on $2,000 bonuses for every employee this month and previously approved other incentives with grant money. The learning environment can be just as important as the people who make it possible.

Using recent estimates, RSS could build at least a couple schools with federal relief money alone. New schools might not be on the federal relief project list or even allowed under relief funding rules, but facility-related issues must find a place among top priorities.

Asked about bringing more staff in, Watlington raised some doubt, saying the pool of candidates is not robust at this time of year and that there are a lot of jobs. But if RSS is going to recover from extreme learning loss, it’s worth turning to retired educators — of which there are an untold number in Rowan County — about helping on a short-term basis. A more personalized experience a few hours a week could do wonders for students who are struggling.

Can RSS replicate the teacher lab in place at Koontz, where college students are working as apprentices for a school year?

Watlington says RSS has a three-year timeframe and that it doesn’t intend to return any money. That makes the timeframe tight. After deciding how to spend money, it takes time to buy things, hire people and ensure none of the money is left unused. That makes it particularly tough that Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon took a new job elsewhere.

“She’s been a phenomenal associate superintendent and chief financial officer,” Watlington said, noting that he’s looking for “the very best qualified chief financial officer across the state of North Carolina or somewhere in the Southeast United States.”

In the immediate future, Rowan-Salisbury Schools can make progress toward spending money by facilitating a robust discussion among educators about what they need to improve the learning experience. Parents can help by providing input about where schools are falling short.

In Rowan-Salisbury Schools and among all other governments receiving federal funding, officials need to be intentional about asking for ideas about an unprecedented level of funding and continue to report to the public about ways money is spent.