A public hearing was held regarding Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grant funding at Tuesday’s county commissioners’ meeting, where three speakers requested funds be allocated to the board of education to fund laptops for students.
Jeannett Cudmore, chief financial officer for the county, reminded commissioners they approved a plan submitted to the state May 5 for a total of $19.8 million for CARES grant funding. A total of $9.9 million would be for public health expenditures to be allocated to the health department.
Another $9.9 million would be allocated to the county for payroll expenses, facilitate compliance, economic support and governmental function expenses, which will also be set up in a federal project for budget authority.
Additional county items could be allocated from the health department’s allocation based on the actual expenses incurred.
Large projects noted in the spending plan for the county government’s share included $2 million for a small business program and $3 million to provide cable connectivity to the county’s “middle mile,” for those working and learning at home. It was not clear how the remainder of the money would be spent when the commissioners outlined their plan a few weeks ago.
While the school board had previously requested about $5 million of CARES Act funds for laptops for students to use in distance learning, commissioners granted only about $58,000 for sanitary costs related to COVID-19. The commissioners allotted no emergency money specifically for student laptops.
Residents were asked to call in to the hearing yesterday or submit written or video comments to commissioners as to adhere to social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic. There was one video submission from Brittany Kirker, an educator with St. Mary’s public schools.
She told commissioners there is a “digital divide” as 27% of her students do not have access to online learning, and suggested if commissioners do not help with bridging the “communication gap” they are “perpetuating inequality” and “ignoring the neediest children.”
Jill Morris, president of the Education Association of St. Mary’s County, called into the hearing to comment, and encouraged commissioners to fund the laptops needed for distance learning.
“This would be a huge investment that could move us forward with distance learning,” she said, and requested they make an adjustment to at least partly fund the laptops.
Marcia Greenberg of Hollywood reinforced the points of the previous two speakers. She pointed out the economic gap that would occur as a consequence of an educational gap, while students won’t have the education they need to contribute to the economy.
After the close of the public hearing and with no additional comments, commissioners voted to approve the fiscal 2020 appropriation ordinance from the CARES fund in a 4-1 vote with Commissioner John O’Connor (R) voting against it.
O’Connor expressed disapproval with the spending plan to The Enterprise two weeks ago and claimed allocating $3 million for improved broadband services for the county’s middle-mile is a “slap in the face” to educators and students who need laptops.