Report: COVID costs Trumbull schools more than $2 million

Board of Finance Chairman Lainie McHugh

Board of Finance Chairman Lainie McHugh

Zoom screen capture

TRUMBULL — The fight against COVID-19 in schools has cost the Board of Education more than $2 million, according to a report to the Board of Finance.

Superintendent Martin Semmel and business administrator Paul Hendrickson detailed the expenditures during a meeting last week. The money will be reimbursed through a combination of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief and the Coronavirus Relief Fund grants.

Hendrickson reported that the $127,000 ESSER funds had been received by wire transfer Oct. 28. The grant, which was provided to assist with remote learning, had been used to purchase 536 Chromebook computers for students and staff.

The $2.1 million in CRF funds, which have been approved but not yet received, are entirely different, he said.

“This grant is designed to get students back in the classroom, nothing for remote learning,” he said.

In March, Interim Superintendent Ralph Iassogna had applied for $5 million in CRF grants. Although the town received less than half that amount, Hendrickson said the schools managed to save money elsewhere, including transportation cost savings a a result of remote learning during the last school year.

“Originally, we had dedicated $800,000 to transportation, but it turned out we didn’t need it,” Hendrickson said. That money has been reallocated.

The grant money is being used in three main areas — salaries, supplies and equipment.

Protective and sanitation supplies, including masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, sprayers and face shields ate up $736,000. Salaries for substitute teachers and paraprofessionals were budgeted at $157,000. Increased custodial costs for the additional cleaning requirements cost another $80,000.

The remainder $765,000 of the grant money went toward upgrading the equipment at the schools. This included upgraded ventilation at the Trumbull High School auditorium, touchless toilets and faucets, upgraded internet capabilities, 70 radios for various school staff, and upgraded HVAC filtration and fresh air systems in the buildings.

Of the total, Hendrickson reported that $500,000 has been spent since March. The rest has been allocated, but remains in the school board’s accounts.

Finance board members had several questions, including a request from Marty Isaac for regular updates on the status of the grant funds. Isaac also commented on several accounts, including special education and food services, that appeared to be in deficit.

“I don’t understand that,” he said. “Don’t we have to close out each fiscal year and it’s zeroed? How is that in deficit?”

Hendrickson, who did not have access to complete budget reports during the remote meeting, cited the scrambling to balance last year’s school budget and said he would investigate the apparent shortfall.

Isaac acknowledged the unprecedented challenges the schools had faced, and the new administration, which has only been on the job since September.

“I’m sorry to put this on your shoulders, it’s been an incredibly challenging year,” he said. “I know you guys are new, and I know we’re putting a lot on your shoulders, but I look forward to your response.”

Isaac pointed out that the schools had a number of funding cliffs in the budget that were the result of re-allocation last year.

“It’s an interesting time to have come to Trumbull,” he said.

Michael Barker asked for details on where the money was coming from to cover the $2.9 million that the schools had requested but not received from the state.

“Are we saving $2.9 million or paying somewhere else? Or somewhere in between?” he asked.

Semmel in response said that Iassogna had decided to apply for as much grant funding as possible.

“They anticipated there could be additional expenses, and they weren’t sure what they would be, so the goal was to apply for as much as we can and see what we got,” Semmel said. “We do not plan to spend any more than the $2.1 million identified here.”

The response satisfied Barker.

“I appreciate that concluding sentence,” he said.