The district received an update on its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds. ESSER is federal funding aimed at helping safely reopen and sustain operations of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students.
Districts across North Carolina have left millions of COVID-19 relief funds on the table by not allocating them, but that’s not the case here: Chatham County Schools has clear plans for the funding it’s been allocated.
ESSER was released in three waves, with funding for the final wave needing to be allocated by Sept. 30, 2024. Twenty percent of that funding must go toward learning loss, as per guidelines from the federal government and N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction.
Chatham County Schools has a total allotment of more than $21 million. It can use funds to prevent, reduce or respond to COVID-19 in the classroom.
To date CCS has spent $18.4 million of ESSER funds, leaving $3 million remaining to be spent by June 30, 2024.
The money from ESSER has created opportunities for CCS to hire more than 50 new positions. That includes a dropout prevention specialist at each high school, three new social workers and three new English as a Second Language (ESL) professionals. The funding has also helped build out the district’s summer learning to recoup learning losses from COVID-19.
The four main themes of spending included human capital, health and safety, extended learning and instructional support, and professional development. While the funding has been useful to the district, officials also said the massive influx of funds has been overwhelming to manage.
“When it rains it pours,” said Carol Little, CCS executive director of federal programs. “It’s been great, but it’s been challenging to manage $21 million in such a short time.”
Chief Financial Officer Tony Messer said he anticipates the remaining $3 million in ESSER funds will be spent before 2024 with to the addition of staff bonuses in 2021-2022.
Operations Research and Education Laboratory (OREd)
With growth coming to Chatham County related to Chatham Park, VinFast, Wolfspeed and other industrial plans, consultants believe the district will be over capacity in the near future.
According to OREd, which conducted a land-use study and offered population projections for schools for the next 10 years, they projected Chatham Park alone will account for more than 4,500 students in the district over the next decade. This means that schools in the eastern portion of the county will be over capacity if it maintains the current state.
The district has, however, said it plans to build at least one school in Chatham Park’s Northern Village with another likely in the Southern Village as the development progresses.
Question marks also remain about just how much student population growth will be seen in Siler City and surrounding areas once Wolfspeed is fully operational, which is predicted to be around 2026.
The population projections for each school over the next decade are shown in the chart below, with red indicating over-capacity and orange indicating at-capacity.
Chart courtesy of Operations Research and Education Laboratory, Institute for Transportation Research, and Education North Carolina State University.
Board members said they were surprised at just how much growth was projected, especially in the western portion of the county.
Carla Murray, executive director for elementary grades, provided an update on LETRS — Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. Through a 160-hour professional development program, educators understand “how” students learn to read and write, recognize the reasons “why” some students struggle, and determine “what” must be taught to increase student success.
CCS provides a bonus of $1,000 to any K-5 teacher to any teacher who receives their Certificate of Completion for LETRS.
According to Murray, teachers and principals appreciate this program because it helps struggling students learn to read.
“This training has been great to help me learn the art of teaching literacy,” read one teacher testimony about LETRS shared at the retreat. “I feel that I am learning the science and why behind my students are learning or not learning to read.”
Teachers also praised the flexibility and support of the district to engage in LETRS training. CCS allows for virtual training sessions, teacher workdays or ESSER-funded substitutes to attend professional development sessions.
The district plans to renew LETRS for two more years.
New Central Services Building
Chatham County Schools has been in the process of building a new Central Services building, and construction is well underway. Blice shared an update on the construction and moving process at the retreat.
CCS is anticipating beginning the transition to the new building during the last week of February. By the end of January, the project is expected to be substantially complete and a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) is expected before the end of February.
The transition to the new building is expected to abide by the following schedule:
- Week of February 27: Move Technology, Public Information, and School Nutrition.
- Week of March 6: Move Senior Cabinet Members.
- Week of March 13: Move ASIS. Will be moving from several different locations.
- Week of March 20: Move Human Resources, Reception, Superintendent & Board of Education.
- Week of March 27: Move Finance (limited window of availability due to payroll constraints).
The new main entrance for the Chatham County Schools Central Services building (Photo courtesy of Chatham County Schools.)