The Guam Department of Education’s plan to spend its share of the $287 million in American Rescue Plan funds, could see some changes as they try to juggle a $25 million budget shortfall in local appropriations.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced its approval of Guam’s ARP spending plan to sustain health and safety of students at compulsory-aged schools on island
The plan is to stabilize education by addressing learning loss through expanded opportunities for students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Getting these funds is a vital part of GDOE’s road map to return about 26,000 students to five days a week of instruction after nearly two and a half years of reduced instructional time in the classroom. But, the funds are also vital to private schools and charter schools on island.
“Participating public, charter and private, nonpublic schools are eager to implement activities outlined within the approved (ARP Outlying Areas State Educational Agency) Implementation Plan to accelerate student learning and achievement, close learning gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and provide a safe learning environment,” GDOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez said in the release, which thanked U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and his staff for their review and approval.
While private and charter schools will get their share of the ARP relief funds, GDOE is considering taking a second look at appropriations to make up for the gap left in the fiscal year 2022 budget.
Nearly a week ago, Fernandez was tasked to look for savings and additional sources of funding to support essential operations of the department. The Guam Education Board, during a special meeting addressing the fiscal 2022 budget spending plan gave Fernandez 30 days to bring something to the board.
“We have up to Nov. 6, 2021, to report back to the board on our actions and plans to address the budget gap. We are continuing to meet on these items," he said. "As part of our review, we will be examining what areas the ARP might be able to support in terms of allowable uses. If we need to request use of the ARP for those purposes, we will need to ensure that U.S. DOE approves."
Right off the bat, looking at closing the gap with the ARP was discussed, but, now that the ARP spending plan is approved, GDOE’s next moves will be made cautiously.
Calling ARP "a new type of relief fund," Fernandez said, the rules for application differ from normal grant money. Constant communication with U.S. DOE will be necessary, he said, to ensure compliance and to avoid unnecessary delays.
For now, GDOE is juggling its finances as officials characterized the fiscal 2022 budget of $206 million as the “worst” level of funding received over the years.
The budget is a drastic blow to GDOE’s purse strings as the initial budget request of $373 million was already reduced to $291.3 million as a result of an infusion of $438.5 million in COVID-19-related funds. But, then budget negotiations resulted in an additional $4.3 million deducted.
The main cost items for GDOE are personnel, contracts, supplies/equipment and utilities.
Out of the $206 million, current personnel costs for GDOE amounts to $187 million, which leaves roughly $18 million for essential operations like keeping the lights on at the schools.
GDOE is exploring how ARP can assist in reducing the gap, but the department will move forward with austerity measures.
“We will be doing some cross-leveling to adjust for the decline in enrollment, but we still need to ensure that we have adequate staffing to keep our schools safe. Utilities will likely not change much,” Fernandez said.
“We have renegotiated our contracts in prior years when we had to adjust to $30 million in budget cuts, so it's not clear whether there will be much further savings," he added.
GDOE will also try to reduce costs in supplies and equipment.
“However, not much funding is in this category. It will not be an easy task, but I do think we will be able to solve it this year. It's future years that we need to begin addressing as federal funds will not be around forever,” Fernandez said.
What GDOE does now will impact its financial decisions for future years as COVID-19 relief funding must be obligated by Sept. 30, 2023 and expended by the 2024 deadline.