The Rapid City Area Schools’ Board of Education voted Monday evening to send a grant applications to the state Department of Education for nearly $18 million in COVID-19 relief funds to build two new schools.
The board unanimously approved the authorization of the ESSER II Grant submission for the 2020-21 school year for $17,868,336. The district must spend the ESSER II money by Sept. 30, 2022. The board also approved spending the money to build a new South Middle School and a new elementary school, Parkview, to replace Robbinsdale.
The ESSER II funds are a part of the federal Coronavirus Emergency Relief Funds that are earmarked to address the impact of COVID-19 on elementary and secondary schools. ESSER II grant funding can also be used to address learning loss, improving and repairing school facilities, and improving indoor air quality in schools.
"In South Dakota, a District’s allocation under the ESSER grants is based upon its proportionate Title I Part A allocation. Districts apply for the grant funds through the [Department of Education.] The ESSER grants are guided by the overarching principle that the costs incurred must be reasonable and necessary to meet the overall purpose of the federal program," said Coy Sasse, RCAS director of business and support services.
RCAS intends to use the funds, as well as future funds as a part of a third ESSER grant, to pay for South Middle improvements and the Parkview Elementary School. With the addition of the third round of federal funds, the district will have between $58-$62 million federal coronavirus relief funds, most of which will be used for the two projects.
According to Sasse, at the state and federal level school districts have been encouraged to think about long-term needs and to use the funds for "high impact activities."
The school district believes the projects fall within the parameters of the funds required uses and cites multiple benefits of addressing issues of overcrowding at the two schools and other areas in the district, education suitability, ADA compliance, and indoor air quality. The projects also have a lasting impact in ways that other uses for the funds could not.
All board members voted to approve the grant application and supported the use of the funds for the construction projects, but some members were cautious about the timeline.
“The biggest thing is this money isn’t just laying there for us to use forever, there’s a serious timeline, and just to build a school takes a long time before they actually start the brick and mortar,” board member Jim Hansen said at Monday’s board meeting.
Board member Amy Policky said she was in support of using the money to build new facilities but that she wished the money could be spread across the district to more equally help students.
The district plans to put 30% of ESSER III funds, which have not yet been dispersed, toward addressing learning loss due to COVID-19, as required by the federal government.
“I’m thankful for the windfall of money that allows us to ease our needs, but I hope that as we move forward that we will use the money to help the students right now that have been harmed by the fallout of COVID, and that that’s our most important focus even as we’re excited to have money to build two new schools,” Policky said.
The district is confident that the two construction projects are legitimate uses of the funds.
"This is a fairly broad category which would encompass any expense or activity that could be related back to the learning environment of students. Examples would include: Summer School and/or supplemental programs, assessments, instructional materials and coaching, supplemental support to special populations, mental health support, technology, addressing issues with the learning environment (facilities), etc.," Sasse told the Journal. "The District’s hope is to use all funds, outside of those obligated to address learning loss, to address facility issues which it believes meet the requirements of the programs. The District is in the process of gaining pre-approval from the SD DOE to use these funds in this manner."
Policky added that the district needs to continue to communicate their needs and plans with the community as in the future there will be needs for bonds to pay for more big projects.
Although the current funding will not be available forever, the two building projects will have a long-lasting effect on the district, the board agreed.
“I think [the two construction projects] are the wisest use of the amount of money that is coming to us. It also, I think, will have the longest-term impact of anything that could be done with that money,” Board President Curt Pochardt said. “As has been mentioned, Robbinsdale School is as old as I am, so is South, and we’re in about the same kind of shape.”
A private study that Rapid City Area Schools commissioned in 2016 rated South Middle School the worst in the district in terms of building condition and technological capability.
Robbinsdale, which was built in 1953, was previously slated to close and be replaced as part of a proposed master plan for school facilities.