GREENSBORO — Guilford County officials set aside an additional $10 million on Tuesday to help the local school system with the cost of reopening in COVID-19’s wake.
In a last scheduled work session before it’s expected to adopt the 2020-21 budget, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners increased from $5 million to $10 million federal CARES Act money for school uses, such as student laptops to foster remote learning, new sanitizing equipment, increased custodial work and self-flushing devices to make school lavatories less germ-infested.
In a unanimous vote, commissioners also expanded the limits on how the schools could spend about $5 million in previously issued bonds initially tagged for school security.
Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston made the motion to allot money for reopening costs and related maintenance, but only after the school system submits a detailed plan for how the money would be used.
“If it’s not acceptable to us, we don’t vote for it,” Alston said of the itemized list. “This is just giving them something to say, ‘OK, we’re not giving you $62 million from the list there. We’re giving you $15 million and you itemize for us what our money is going to be used for.’”
School administrators gave the commissioners a list of about $106 million in potential costs to reopen the schools that were closed earlier this spring as the new coronavirus tightened its grip on public health.
Commissioner Alan Branson said school leaders had erred by failing to keep maintenance personnel on the job while the schools were closed.
“We could have been doing these things since March,” Branson said of maintenance and repairs. “We needed to look after these facilities in a down time when we didn’t have the children in the schools.”
Commissioner Kay Cashion said the school system’s list of reopening needs seemed somewhat haphazard, as if governed by a philosophy of, “Let’s put down everything we can think of.”
Several commissioners met with school leaders recently seeking more clarity on local reopening plans, but many uncertainties remain because state government has not yet released details for how that will happen, said commissioners Chairman Jeff Phillips.
“The picture might become clearer at that point,” Phillips said, referring to the possibility Gov. Roy Cooper will release detailed instructions within several weeks for schools reopening.
The county’s CARES Act money for schools would come from a $93.7 million grant that Guilford County received from the federal government to offset expenses caused by the pandemic.
Guilford officials have set aside some of the money to cover the county’s public health, emergency services and other costs. In addition to distributing parts of the grant to Guilford cities and towns, the county is distributing about $20 million to small businesses that have lost revenue during the pandemic.
On another school issue, the board also discussed its potential loggerheads with Greensboro municipal government: the City Council’s unwillingness to continue subsidizing the “school resource officers” in local middle and high schools.
Commissioner Justin Conrad said he was gratified to have unanimous support from his fellow commissioners behind his resolve to keep the program alive with county money if the city follows through on its plan to stop the subsidy.
“There can be no more important issue than the safety of our kids,” Conrad said.
He said he did not want to get into a situation with the city where each tries to tighten its budget by cutting out items that benefit the other.
“We don’t want to get into a tit for tat with any other elected body,” Conrad said.
Greensboro officials estimated Tuesday they have been subsidizing the program by as much as $1 million a year and said they would continue providing the service only in a pay-as-you-go format where the Guilford school system — which gets much of its revenue through the commissioners — pays in full for all “SRO” services.
The commissioners heard from county staff that their Guilford CARES Small Business Assistance Grant Program is running pretty smoothly but still has a lot of money to distribute to businesses hurt by the pandemic that forced them to close temporarily or otherwise lose revenue.
Nearly two weeks into the program, county officials have approved about $2 million in grants to several hundred small businesses in amounts ranging up to $10,000 to cover demonstrated losses.
But that still leaves about $18 million.
Phillips said he is surprised the program has not drawn more applicants given the pandemic’s impact on business activity.
He said the county might need to expand the definition of small business from its current cap of 25 “full-time equivalent” employees to 50.
County officials also are thinking about ending the policy of limiting county recipients to $10,000 in total aid from federal pandemic programs. That means if a small business has received $5,000 in aid from another federally funded pandemic program, it could only receive a maximum of $5,000 through the county.
Instead, Phillips said, a new policy could allow such an applicant to receive the full $10,000 permitted under the county program if his or her business could demonstrate total losses to the pandemic of at least $15,000.
In other budget action, the commissioners voted unanimously to budget $200,000 to start a “disparity study” that would study the regional population of businesses owned by minorities and women.
The goal would be to determine whether “MWBE” business are getting their fair share of county construction, service and other contracts.