Sumter School District slowly works through its CARES funding

Trustee encourages summer learning programs to address students’ learning loss


As Sumter School District juggles two COVID-19 relief and response funding pots totaling about $7.5 million, another much bigger pot is available in Columbia. A trustee is proposing the district offer expanded summer learning camps to help spend the funds.

Area 4 Trustee Johnny Hilton offered the suggestions Tuesday night at Sumter School District's Board of Trustees' Finance Committee meeting as district administration appears to be laboring through federal CARES Act regulations and guidance to appropriately spend pandemic relief funding in schools.

A primary concern involves spending the full allotment of $5.6 million in a first round of emergency aid from last summer. Through March 25, the district spent $1.7 million, or 30%, of the total, according to a meeting presentation from district Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Miller.

A second round of emergency aid totaling $23.6 million is available now, but it's a requirement that administration must spend the entire initial pot first.

The deadline for spending the initial round is not until Sept. 30, 2022, but the deadline for the nearly $24 million in the second installment is 12 months later, or Sept. 30, 2023.

On top of that, a third round totaling roughly $50 million from the recently passed American Rescue Plan from Congress and President Joe Biden will soon be available to the district.

Hilton said all the funding is a "good problem" for the district to have and that his idea is to offer expanded summer learning camps to students this summer to help with learning loss associated with the pandemic.

It was not known Wednesday how many districts were struggling through the fund usage.

"We need to move with all dispatch in coming up with these plans," Hilton said. "Nobody is saying we need to spend the money unwisely, but we've got access to this money, and we need to come up with plans, and we need to move on it so we can provide better for our children. … Please let us move forward with all dispatch, full speed ahead, and come up with these plans."

Miller and district Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox said numerous factors are at play in the spending of funds, and it's a "balancing act" to include the approval of spending plans, amendments, reallocations and clarifications on criteria.

Miller said the district expects to submit its plan for the second round of funds to the state Department of Education by the week of April 12.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the committee said it will recommend to the full school board that administration present its plan for second-round fund usage at the April 26 trustees' meeting.

On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Sumter Item on when it hopes to have the first round of CARES Act funding spent, a district spokeswoman emailed that "monies will be expended appropriately and by the deadline."


In other discussion, Hilton also briefly touched on the topic of employee bonuses or salary increases, given the district's general fund statement of revenues and expenditures through February projecting a $4.8 million change in fund balance this year.

If the current projections hold true, the district's general fund balance as of June 30 will be $30.2 million. That's a rapid rise in recent years after the general fund was basically depleted in fiscal 2016 due to overspending.

Last year, the district's change in fund balance was $11 million with $6.2 million from vacancies.

Hilton said he hoped the board and administration will consider giving all employees a bonus at some point this year for additional workloads in the pandemic.

Martin-Knox has said she supports the concept, but COVID-19 impacts on future revenue reductions are still unknown and that she prefers a "wait-and-see approach."

Fellow Finance Committee member Brian Alston said state revenue cuts don't appear to be on the table for next fiscal year, but subsequent years are unknown, and he continued to urge a cautious approach.