MITCHELL — Federal funds designated to help school districts fight the COVID-19 pandemic are accelerating plans to construct a new Mitchell High School building.
The Mitchell School District was one of hundreds in South Dakota that received a portion of federal COVID-19 relief funds, and it has been busy putting them to use, said Steve Culhane, business manager for the Mitchell School District.
“It’s a big impact,” Culhane said of the funding the district has received.
With district budgets already tight and expenses climbing due to the cost of maintaining the educational experience under expensive circumstances, schools across the nation welcomed several rounds of federal relief funds.
Those funds were designated to help schools initiate safety protocols that helped keep students, teachers and staff safe during the pandemic and aided in offsetting the learning loss of students who were in many cases forced from classrooms and other hands-on activities.
The funding came through various acts of Congress, starting with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act ( CARES ), which saw both public and private schools receive a block of funding to help battle the effects of coronavirus. Through that act, John Paul II Elementary School in Mitchell received $11,805, Mitchell Christian School received $10,861 and the Mitchell School District received $558,713, Culhane said.
The Mitchell School District put those funds toward general COVID-19 safety measures as well as new laptops for students, a growing necessity in an era when remote learning has become more of a reality.
The Mitchell School District has already spent those funds after receiving approval from the South Dakota Department of Education , which oversees how the federal dollars are spent at each school. The district spent those dollars and asked the Department of Education for reimbursement, and it approved the request.
The improvements brought about by CARES funding were extremely helpful for the district, but it was the next two rounds of federal relief funding that has likely had the biggest impact on the district and its future.
With the approval of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 ( CRRSAA ), another round of money flowed into the district. This time, the district was allocated $2,295,878, and Culhane said school officials had an idea in mind when it came to how it would be used.
“Every school has to go and answer what they are going to do with this money. Basically, the intent was for improvements to HVAC and cleaning materials, and we thought let’s put it toward the design and construction of the new high school. And that sped (that project) up,” Culhane said.
The Mitchell School District has been planning an upgrade for its aging high school building for several years , budgeting money away to pay for the design and construction in an effort to avoid looking for other funding plans, such as a public bond issue.
With school officials already looking to graduate from its current high school building, it didn’t seem to make sense to put that money into improvements in a building that wasn’t going to be in use forever.
“We didn’t want to put that money into the old high school,” Culhane said.
The district will also use a good portion of the third round of COVID-19 relief funding, which stems from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 , for the high school project. That act saw $5,165,217 in funding available for the Mitchell district. Stipulations of that funding indicated that 80% of that money, or $4,124,974, could be spent on building projects and 20% had to be put toward combating learning loss for students.
Coupled with the funds from CRRSAA, the American Rescue Plan money put $6,420,852 in the hands of district officials looking to upgrade the high school. With time limits on spending the money set for 2023 and 2024, respectively, Culhane said that influx moved up the timeline for the new high school.
“Here we were thinking at the time in 2020 and 2021, we knew we had to do a new high school, and we thought we would start that process in 2025,” Culhane said. “But with all this money we said, well, everything just got moved up.”
School officials have estimated a new high school will cost somewhere between $40 million and $45 million, based on what design the Mitchell Board of Education approves when one is presented, as well as fluctuations in material and labor costs. The board approved the hire of Schemmer, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, as the architecture firm tasked with designing the new structure at a meeting in August.
Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, said being able to move up the high school project is a plus, but the funding has been useful on many different fronts, including bonuses for teachers who dealt with the steep ups and downs associated with working in the middle of a pandemic. Maintaining the integrity of the student educational experience was a major focus, as well.
“A lot of the money is (also) going toward the remediation of learning loss, so we did some great summer work and courses. We’re going after any cases where students may have fallen back a bit and stalled out,” Graves said.
Like the funding received through CARES, a portion of the American Rescue Plan funding will go toward needs other than the new high school. The American Rescue Plan dictates 20% of its allocated funds, or $1,031,243, must go toward negating learning loss brought on by the pandemic.
The district has used some of that money at the elementary school level, where it hired three fully-certified tutors to assist students, with one stationed at each of the three district elementary schools. Culhane said that would continue through the next three years. He said there are also plans to enhance summer school opportunities. Student transportation, books and disposable science equipment are also aided by that funding.
At the high school level, some teachers are being paid a stipend for doing additional work through those funds.
And while districts are granted a fair amount of leeway on how they want to spend their relief funds, it’s still a regimented process, Culhane said. For example, it’s not clear if putting funds toward setting up a system for streaming board of education meetings, or paying an outside entity like the Mitchell Republic to stream them for the district, would be approved at the state level.
“Every school district had to submit their application to the State of South Dakota and then basically tell them how we were going to spend the money. And they would approve that,” Culhane said.
Graves said the district has been given a good amount of flexibility with the funding it has received, which allows the district to customize its use of that funding to get the most out of it.
“There is a lot of leeway within those rules that allow us to really individualize what we wanted to do and to address our specific needs,” Graves said.
Using those funds in the most impactful way possible is important, Graves said, because it is hard to count on funding like this to come every year. As the pandemic hopefully runs its course and normalcy returns to the school year, so will the way the district looks at its bottom line.
“I would be very doubtful that any other (federal) dollars are coming, and we have to get back to a sense of normalcy,” Graves said.