Thanks to unanimous County Commission vote, up to 5,800 eligible Sarasota County School District students will be able to connect to internet for remote learning

Board members debate proposal, with Ziegler pointing to school district’s facing potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in state funding because of lower enrollment

The County Commission conducts its Aug. 31 budget workshop. Commissioner Christian Ziegler is hidden by a structure at the far right of the dais. News Leader image

It took the better part of an hour, but the Sarasota County Commission this week ultimately voted 5-0 to approve funding for Comcast to provide internet access for up to 5,800 Sarasota County School District students who chose the remote learning option before the new school year started.

Classes began on Aug. 31.

County staff members indicated that, with the board’s approval, they would work with Comcast to launch the program as quickly as possible.

County leaders dealing with the dispersion of CARES Act funding from the federal government, through the state, determined that approximately $285,000 of the $343,000 contract with Comcast would be reimbursable under the Coronavirus Relief Fund, Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, told the board members. All the CARES Act money the county receives must be spent by Dec. 30, Collins stressed.

Unless Congress authorizes an extension of that deadline, Collins said during the board’s Aug. 31 budget workshop, the county would have to cover the $114,000 extra for the Comcast service in January and February 2021.

“There is some risk there,” Collins pointed out, as the U.S. Treasury Department guidelines make it clear that the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) will reimburse the county only for expenses related to COVID-19.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis stressed that it is doubtful all 5,800 students are in areas served by Comcast. “The maximum risk under this proposal is $114,000,” Lewis told the board.

During a special meeting on Aug. 19, the commission accepted an initial $18.9 million in CARES Act money, provided through the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The potential exists for the county to receive a total of $75.7 million, Collins reported to the board in early July.

Rich Collins answers a commissioner’s question on July 8. New Leader image

As Collins explained the internet access proposal on Aug. 31, Comcast already has a program with “very specific guidelines” that can be used to help students. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, or their families must be receiving federal housing aid or another form of federal needs-based assistance.

Out of the 18,000 students in the school district receiving free or reduced-price lunches, Collins continued, 5,800 countywide enrolled for remote learning.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted the lack of internet infrastructure in North Port, so students there would be able to benefit from the Comcast program, too. He was referring to public speakers’ pleas for board support for students in Newtown who need internet access.

“We have reached out to Frontier as a potential option, as well,” Collins pointed out. Thus far, he indicated, staff had not been able to reach a deal with that company.

The Comcast program is offered at a cost of $9.95 per month, Collins noted, so county staff proposed the funding for six months, through Feb. 28.

If the pandemic worsened, Collins said, and all 18,000 eligible students needed aid, the total cost for six months would be $1.1 million.

Collins explained that the program is offered only on a six-month or 12-month basis, which is why county staff had proposed six months of assistance.

The payments would cover the expense of routers to connect students to the internet, he said. The equipment usually is sent to students’ homes with instructions on how to use it, Collins continued. If family members have problems, he added, they are able to request help from Comcast.

The company also has talked about the potential for designating a central location in Newtown, the traditionally African American community in North Sarasota, where members of the eligible students’ families could pick up the routers, Collins said.

Ziegler responded that he hopes representatives of the Sarasota County Chapter of the NAACP, which were among those making formal requests of the commission for internet aid in Newtown, also would be willing to help family members who need guidance in setting up the routers.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. News Leader image

When Chair Michael Moran asked whether all the students enrolled for remote learning who are eligible for the program have laptop computers, Collins replied that if they do not, the school district will provide the computers to them.

Further, the district will communicate the program details to students and their families, Collins pointed out.

“If we were talking about investing in infrastructure in the county,” Ziegler said, “that would be more of a county expense.” Still, he called county staff’s proposal for the Comcast program a “no-brainer for me.”

When Moran asked whether the Sarasota County School Board would cover the expense for the potential 5,800 students if the County Commission did not approve it, Collins replied that he was not certain.

Debating the best path forward

During the discussion, Moran said he could not envision the commissioners letting the Comcast service end on Feb. 28, after six months, because the school year is set to run through May 29. “So who’s going to be picking up the tab?”

Commissioner Alan Maio asked about the potential of working out an agreement with Comcast for the county to pay — by Dec. 30 — the expense of the routers for the entire school year, to ensure the CRF would reimburse the county.

However, Deputy County Attorney Karl Senkow explained that the U.S. Treasury Department “prohibits that kind of an arrangement.”

Commissioner Ziegler, whose wife, Bridget, is a member of the School Board, talked of his understanding that the district had exhausted most of its funding from the CARES Act in making preparations for schools to open for the 2020-21 school year.

Commissioner Nancy Deter. File image

Nonetheless, Commissioner Nancy Detert took exception to the idea of the county’s paying for the assistance to students.

She referred to adults “just hanging on by a thread” as a result of the economic downturn produced by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I’d want to see [the School Board’s] budget before we volunteer our budget dollars,” Detert added. Further, she indicated that the commission would be castigated if it ceased the funding support after six months.

“Wouldn’t it be better,” she asked, to spend the money for expanded county library hours, “so that anybody that needs the internet access would have it?”

Ziegler pointed out that it is difficult even in his home for his 6-year-old daughter to find a quiet place where she can listen to her teacher and ask questions. In a library, he stressed, students would be unable to talk to their teachers via remote access.

Additionally, Ziegler emphasized that the school district could lose $20 million to $30 million in state funding this year, with enrollment down, as some parents chose to homeschool their children or send them to private schools, and others apparently have decided to keep their youngsters out of kindergarten, for examples. Referring to the School Board members, Ziegler added, “They’re about to see a world of hurt.”

‘The only thing I care about this issue,” Ziegler emphasized, “is that it gets done.”

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request, school district spokeswoman Kelsey Whealy provided the following information about all the funding the Sarasota County Schools have received from the state and the federal government as a result of the pandemic:

  • The district has been awarded $6.5 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) as part of the CARES Act. The district’s portion after equitable services to private schools and distribution of charter school allocations is approximately $5.17 million, “which will be used to offset the cost of the 5 additional training days for school staff,” Whealy wrote in a Sept. 1 email.
  • The district has been awarded $607,000 from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds. The district’s portion after equitable services to private schools and distribution of charter school allocations is approximately $518,000, which will be used “to offset costs associated with the district’s Summer 2020 Boost program that provided personalized academic instruction for our students who struggled during the 4th quarter with the switch to distance learning.”
  • The district has applied for an extra $447,000 “for the Coronavirus Prevention and Response (Sanitation and Cleaning) that has been authorized by the GEER and CARES Act funding,” Whealy added. “The District will also be required to provide equitable services to private schools and distribution of the charter school allocation,” she noted. District staff is anticipating receiving approximately $340,000, which will be used to offset the cost of custodial sanitation and cleaning products and equipment.
  • “The District is hopeful that [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funding for the cost of [personal protective equipment] will be forthcoming,” Whealy continued. “The District has applied but is awaiting information on when reimbursement claims may be made — periodically or all at once.”

Further thoughts

As the County Commission discussion was wrapping up on Aug. 31, Commissioner Detert finally agreed to support the motion Commissioner Maio made to approve the Comcast program, saying, “I’m not going to ever be in a position to vote against children and needy students.” Nevertheless, she added, “I think we’re the wrong body working on the wrong problem, frankly.”

She pointed to an Aug. 30 letter the board received from the Sarasota County NAACP Chapter.

Written by Chapter President Trevor Harvey, the letter said, “We are requesting you set aside assistance to the Newtown area because it has experienced a disproportionate impact from the Coronavirus. Additionally, the Newtown area has a history of being unable to quickly access local government relief programs.”

This is a closeup of Newtown in County Commission District 2, as a result of the redistricting effort the commission pursued in 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Referring specifically to residents in the 34234 zip code, Harvey added, “The amount of debt, death and hospitalizations ensuing within [the community’s African American and Hispanic populations] due to the Coronavirus warrants customized relief. Data supports this recommendation for a concentration of funding in Newtown for food, housing, health, technology, and business resources …”

“We should make sure the infrastructure is in their neighborhood,” Detert said of Newtown residents, “so that they can connect and can run multiple [internet programs] from their [homes].”

Commissioner Charles Hines said he supported the motion, too, though he acknowledged “a lot of philosophical discussions here.”

Hines added, “We’re all talking like this [pandemic] is going to continue for two or three years.” Yet, he continued, death rates are down and hospitalization rates have declined significantly in the county in recent weeks. “This county can survive that loss,” he added, referring to the $114,000.