BEWARE THOSE LATE Friday afternoon emails.
Karen DeFrancis, business administrator for the Manchester school district, told school board members last week that she received an email at 4:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11, from the state’s Department of Safety, Homeland Security and Emergency Management notifying school districts they should anticipate getting less money from the federal government than they expected to cover COVID-related expenses this fall.
School districts across the state were planning on reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for materials, including PPE, cleaning supplies and acrylic barriers.
That was before FEMA changed course. In a letter to New Hampshire officials, FEMA said schools did not qualify for financial assistance — even during a pandemic — “because the education of children is not an immediate action necessary to protect public health, life, and safety.”
“We were a little surprised by that,” DeFrancis told school board members. “Basically, we have purchased many of these items, as well as other items for our air handling system, and we were seeking reimbursement from FEMA.”
Those purchases total roughly $11.3 million, according to city officials.
Administrators believed they had until Oct. 3 to submit the district’s application and were hoping to be reimbursed 75% for those items.
“As it stands now, it appears as though we will not be getting that,” DeFrancis said. “Now we have to determine where those funds will come from. Some of our funding was FEMA, our CARES funds, we also did receive $1.3 million in bond funds from the city. We have some deferred maintenance monies, and our last resort would be our general funds.”
Last week, Mayor Joyce Craig sent a letter to the Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) Advisory Board asking for at least $5.5 million for Manchester schools to help alleviate the financial burden of COVID-19.
Last Tuesday, the city submitted its third and expected final reimbursement request to GOFERR, totaling more than $20 million, well beyond the estimated $1.32 million still available for Manchester.
The Department of Education released $33.9 million in CARES Act funds to school districts across the state through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, with Manchester schools receiving $5.8 million of that. In the meantime, the school district estimated its COVID-19-related costs at around $11.3 million.
“Given the fact that the city has more than expended its allocation of GOFERR funds, FEMA is no longer providing reimbursement to school district as previously stated, and the Manchester School District is estimating over $11.3 million in COVID-related expenditures, we’re left with few available funding options,” Craig wrote.
Craig said she contacted Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who signed a bipartisan letter urging FEMA to change its position.
“Testing, disinfectants, and PPE were not part of everyday American life before this pandemic, and their use is not an increased operating cost, it is a necessary part of our survival. These costs are clearly linked to our response to COVID-19 and therefore should be eligible for FEMA funding,” read the letter to FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor.
“Most importantly, this policy change would leave many Americans to fend for themselves against this virus as we attempt to reopen the country. Changing course in the middle of our battle against COVID-19 would be dangerous and could lead to possibly disastrous outcomes.”
School board members voted unanimously to send a letter to the members of the state and congressional delegations seeking help in securing FEMA funds for city schools.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., announced he is co-sponsoring legislation to reverse FEMA’s decision. The FEMA Assistance Relief Act of 2020 would help ease financial burdens on states and local communities and tells FEMA that Congress expects the agency to cover certain expenses for reimbursement, including PPE and other services for public schools, public transit, and courthouses.
“As students and teachers begin to go back to school this fall, we have no more important obligation than to ensure they can do so safely and with the supplies and resources they need to clean their classrooms and prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Pappas said in a statement. “It is alarming and deeply troubling that FEMA would change course so suddenly to end its reimbursements to local governments for PPE and other essential COVID-19 expenses — essentially leaving our cities and towns to fend for themselves.”
Mask avengerExpect signage at City Hall soon warning all attendees at school board meetings they must wear masks.
This comes after city resident Patrice Benard headed to the microphone — sans mask — at last week’s board meeting to avail herself of her allotted three minutes during the public forum portion of the agenda. As she began speaking, Ward 11’s Nicole Leapley interrupted.
“Madam Mayor, point of order,” Leapley said. “It’s my understanding that all attendees must wear a mask at all times in the (aldermanic) chambers.”
“You have a health exemption,” Benard said. Such a clause would allow those unable to wear a mask for health reasons to attend meetings in person without one.
“Not to my knowledge, that was not in the motion that was passed,” said Leapley, who went on to say the board offers alternative methods for residents to address the board, such as emailing comments to the clerk before a meeting. The public can also watch meetings on television, Leapley said. Benard was allowed to continue with her remarks, which focused on difficulties students and parents have with remote learning, but later in the night Leapley again raised the issue of masks in the chambers.
“Our policy for in-person school board meetings requires the same COVID precautions as our schools, the most obvious of which are wearing of masks and respecting six-foot social distancing,” Leapley said. “If these standards are not met, I’m afraid that we will have to stop meeting in person and go back to 100% remote. I’m asking for the indulgence of the public, to follow the policies made by this body.”
“I voted to return to meeting in public because I think it’s important that we hear the public in person or through the clerk’s letters, and that we are here showing up to do the work in a very visible way,” Leapley saod. “I would ask the public to respect the policy that the board passed, and would ask the board to enforce, to make sure that our policies are followed.”
Signs will be posted at the door of City Hall, as well as at the foot of the stairways, reminding people of the mask policy and of they ways they can participate without one. The mask requirement will also be posted on school board agendas in the future.
Late last week, the Union Leader asked Benard how she felt about the exchange.
“It took me by surprise,” Benard said. “I purposely stayed outside the chambers, in the hallway and I sat for over an hour on the floor, waiting for public comment. I do not wear a mask, so I try to be extra-respectful of those who do. I kept quiet, keeping my mouth shut — not my usual modus operandi — and I waited. When I approached the podium, I was very careful not to touch the podium and to stand back from the microphone.”
“I know the CDC guidelines say that if you are not in close proximity for more than 15 minutes, you should be fine, and I knew I would be in the chambers for all of three minutes,” Benard said. “I thought I was respecting everyone, which is why it took me by surprise.” Benard isn’t sure what she’ll do for the next meeting.
“I will calm down first, then will probably have to seek legal counsel,” she said. “It seems to violate a few laws about public meetings and may even violate some constitutional rights. But for right now, I’m more concerned for all the families having such terrible problems with this remote learning.”
Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at [email protected]