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‘CARE’ing for the children

GATESVILLE – The Gates County Board of Commissioners agreed to appropriate $80,000 of its remaining CARES Act funding to allow the county’s public school system to purchase Chromebooks for their students.

This plan, which came after 45 minutes of discussion by the board at their recent regularly scheduled meeting, was introduced by Commissioner Jonathan Jones.

But before a decision was reached to approve the plan, Jones wanted to make sure that the county had met its other obligations with the $662,000 in CARES Act funding they received.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was approved at the federal level earlier this year and distributed to the states. In turn, each state expended a portion of that funding to aid their counties. North Carolina was awarded a shade over $4 billion from the CARES Act and allocated money – established as the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) – to each county based on population.

Kim Outland, Gates County’s Financial Services Director, said the majority of the funding was used towards salaries and benefits of eligible employees that were considered “substantially dedicated” during COVID-19 pandemic and those requesting emergency FMLA leave. No money could be used to reimburse salaries/benefits for those in administration roles.

“We took a conservative approach with this money,” Outland said. “We have purchased very little in the way of COVID related sanitation items. We went through FEMA first to reimburse that money rather than using our COVID allotment for those purchases.”

Outland said all CARES Act funding must be appropriated by Dec. 30. She added the funding was received prior to the close of the 2019-20 fiscal year. The money carried over to the current fiscal year, of which $200,000 has been budgeted for salaries for those substantially dedicated employees [on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle].

“Looking back at this fiscal year’s budget, we balanced it by using $55,190 out of fund balance,” Commissioner Jones observed. “So by using any monies over this $200,000 towards salaries is replacing that $55,190 in our fund balance plus extra money goes back in our fund balance. We budgeted very conservatively and now our revenues are coming in higher than expected.”

Outland said due to the conservative approach in building the 2020-21 budget, the potential was there for the county to receive as much as $400,000 more in sales tax revenue than was originally anticipated.

Jones said he took the initiative to reach out to the Gates County Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Williams about the possibility of using a portion of the county’s CARES Act funding to purchase Chromebooks for the county’s schoolchildren.

“We have money that we did not plan to receive,” Jones said. “I sent an email to Dr. Williams where I said I was interested in using some of this money to purchase Chromebooks for our school system. I am tired of hearing our school kids have less than other counties. I think this would be a good use of these funds.”

Jones asked Dr. Williams to you provide him with the estimated cost if $50,000 or $60,000 was available to purchase Chromebooks and if a decision was made to approve that purchase, could the school system prepare a purchase order prior to Dec. 30.

In his reply, Dr. Williams said the school system’s most recent bid to purchase 400 Chromebooks was $95,648, including tax. This did not include the carts, which are $1,500, before tax, to house and charge up to 30 Chromebooks.

Williams went on to say that the ultimate goal is to be a one-to-one school district.

“We could accomplish this if we could afford to purchase 1,150 more Chromebooks,” he said in his reply to Jones. “This would allow us to maintain technology at the schools and for students to have technology at their hands both at school and at home. Once students have a computer that they have access to at school and at home, it opens them up to individualized activities and lessons touching on each topic they are studying in the classroom. When you give each child a device for learning, they can access personalized content geared toward them.

“Thank you for considering the purchase of Chromebooks for the students of Gates County Schools,” Williams added.

Outland said if the CARES Act money is applied to the purchase of Chromebooks, it must be a new order for those devices, meaning the funding cannot be applied to cover the costs of what is already in the possession of the school system.

She added that Chromebooks are priced at $245 each plus a $25 management license per device.

Jones said he would like to see the county allocate a portion of the remaining CARES Act funding (approximately $185,000 minus a $20,000 pending appropriation to purchase audio/visual/livestreaming upgrades to the meeting room of the renovated historic courthouse) to purchase what he termed as, “learning technology for the county’s students and teachers who are experiencing a tough time right now due to COVID.”

Commissioner Althea Riddick stressed that the $20,000 appropriation for the meeting room upgrades would be “money well invested because the county could not afford it otherwise without the CARES Act funding.” She added that the upgrades, the state of the art equipment will be beneficial to all citizens using the facility or listening/viewing meetings held there.

After further discussion, to include what, if any, is the expectation of having to use any of the remaining $185,000 to address the ongoing COVID-19 situation as well as the possibility of a another round of federal dollars being applied to local government entities to offset their costs in the battle against the virus, Jones motioned for $80,000 to be allocated of the CARES Act money to be used for the purchase of Chomebooks for the school system.

Commissioner Jack Owens offered a second and the motion was approved without objection after Outland weighed in during a brief discussion and said the appropriation to purchase technology items for a public school system is an eligible expense under the CARES Act guidelines.

“This is a funding opportunity that we hope never comes around again; we hope there’s never another COVID situation,” said Owens. “If we don’t spent these dollars, if we don’t have reimbursable expenditures, we have to give this money back.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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