Federal funds will delay $2.5 million in planned cuts for Middletown Schools

Middletown Board of Education members (pictured here at a previous meeting) heard Monday of new federal, coronavirus relief grants available nationally to public schools to help offset the financial costs of the pandemic. School officials told board members the new federal funds will delay a proposed $2.5 million in cuts for next school until after August 2023. (File Photo\Journal-News)
Middletown Board of Education members (pictured here at a previous meeting) heard Monday of new federal, coronavirus relief grants available nationally to public schools to help offset the financial costs of the pandemic. School officials told board members the new federal funds will delay a proposed $2.5 million in cuts for next school until after August 2023. (File Photo\Journal-News)

A series of looming $2.5 million budget cuts for Middletown Schools has been delayed thanks to federal funds from a coronavirus relief program, school officials said Monday evening.

Members of the district’s school board heard from Treasurer Randy Bertram, who said attorneys for the city schools have recently confirmed it is possible to tap into the most recent Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Grant Program, which is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The new federal funds will help stave off most of the proposed $2.5 million reductions in personnel, programs and transportation the board was considering to begin next school year for an additional two school years, said Bertram.

Middletown school officials had also previously discussed the possibility of seeking a school tax hike as early as November if the original cuts were not made.

“The ESSER dollars will not replace the cost of the cuts but supplant the costs of the cuts so we can suspend them while we have the ESSER grant available to us,” he said of the emergency federal funding designed to help public schools in America offset the unexpected costs brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Moreover, said Bertram, district attorneys have determined the $11.7 million in federal grant money can be used for the operating and other expenses the district had targeted for elimination.

Chris Urso, president of the board, said members will continue to identify and approve the series of proposed cuts, as required for ESSER fund eligibility, but then would suspend those reductions and instead use the federal funds to cover the targeted expenses for up to two more years.

The ESSER grants are good through August of 2023.

“If (by then) the district is still having financial struggles, or things haven’t changed at the state level with state revenue (via the pending biennium budget) … we would look at implementing the cuts at that time,” said Bertram.

Urso said when the board does identify financial reductions in its next meeting on March 22, “those cuts would not impact next year’s schools, or the (school) year after that.”

Other financial variables remain for the district’s $76 million annual operation budget.

In April 2020, the district reduced its operating budget by $2 million.

Also unknown is the level of state funding the district would receive under Ohio’s next biennium budget, which saw earlier this month the start of preliminary negotiations among legislators that will led to state budget’s final approval by June 30.

The rising costs of the coronavirus pandemic, increased state-mandated funding for private school vouchers through the Ohio EdChoice program and a looming budget deficit prompted the school board’s exploration of the $2.5 million budget reduction package.

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