Back in March, after local schools were forced to switch to remote instruction because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Prince William school board asked the board of supervisors for $5 million in extra money to buy electronic devices to help high school students complete their online coursework.
Three months later, School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef was back before the county board asking for help to cover some of the extra costs associated with reopening schools in the fall, which the school division initially pegged at about $42 million.
Both of those requests initially went unanswered.
On Tuesday, the supervisors reversed course and voted unanimously to transfer $5 million of the county’s $41 million in federal coronavirus relief money to the school division to help pay for some of its pandemic-related expenses.
The move came at the request of Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, who urged the supervisors to act sooner rather than later on the extra funding, which he said is needed before the supervisors' next meeting in August.
The move was a reversal of sorts considering that the supervisors had already allocated the entire $41 million to various county COVID-19 relief efforts, including money for small-business grants, rental and mortgage assistance for residents, food relief and other expenses.
Prior to the vote, County Executive Chris Martino said the money – although allocated – had not yet entirely been spent. Martino suggested the board could give as much as $5 million to the school division.
It’s not clear exactly how Martino arrived at the amount. Before the meeting, the school board sent the supervisors an updated list of pandemic-related expenses that totaled more than $49 million. It included more than $14 million for computers for virtual learning; more than $4 million for personal protective gear for teachers and staff; and more than $1.6 million for hand-sanitizer alone – amounts that far exceeded the $5 million Martino suggested.
Still, Lateef said he was pleased by the supervisors’ action and considers it a step in the right direction toward a cooperative effort to reopen the county’s 100 schools.
Lateef credited the county board “for stepping up in this time of tremendous uncertainty for the future of our schools and supporting a safe return to instruction this fall.”
Regarding that the fact the allocation falls far short of the $49 million needed, Lateef said the school board understands that the county can’t cover it all.
“We recognize the county doesn’t have $42 million to give to us. We understand that,” he said in an interview after the vote. “But we still need to buy computers, and now we need to buy them for elementary and middle school students. So this money helps free up [school division funds] for other things.”
"It will not be enough but it will be helpful," School Board Vice Chair Loree Williams (Woodbridge) said of the amount. "All help is appreciated."
Lateef said the school division is doing what it can to divert spending on planned construction projects – placing several on hold -- and by using its own reserve cash to cover pandemic-related costs.
Both the school board and the supervisors noted they are hoping for additional state funding for both school division and county needs. The General Assembly will meet in Richmond for a special session beginning Aug. 18 to discuss its budget. Lawmakers generally placed new spending on hold at the start of the pandemic.
Before the vote, Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, said he hoped to get a better understanding of what the school division needs to reopen schools for in-person instruction.
“I really do sympathize with the school board for having to make that decision,” Candland added. “But if they can [reopen schools] safely and there is a price tag to do so, we need to know what that price tag is.”
Lateef said the school board is trying to be as transparent as possible with the supervisors regarding the costs to reopen schools for in-person instruction, which they have made “their highest priority,” he said.
“Resources are necessary to do this properly,” Lateef added.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org