ERIE — Some confusion has arisen regarding the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas grants being provided in Neosho County.

The state distributed more than $130 million in SPARK funds to counties in Kansas. The SPARK funds were made available to states through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Neosho County received more than $3.2 million in relief.

While application processes may be different, school districts throughout Kansas have been able to receive reimbursements for COVID-19-related expenses from their individual counties.

That said, Erie USD 101 Superintendent Troy Damman reported at a Board of Education meeting last week that Neosho County was not issuing SPARK funds for reimbursement to schools like other counties. Rather, Damman said, the county is requiring school districts to apply for grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The most a district could be reimbursed through FEMA is $100,000. If the grant is approved, Damman said the county would then use the SPARK funds to help cover the 15% required match.

Neosho County Emergency Management Director Melanie Kent-Culp said Friday that there is an apparent misunderstanding, as school districts are not at all required to seek a FEMA grant. It was simply another option available to school districts if they want it, to help stretch SPARK funding to meet more needs.

Counties had a choice of methods for disbursement of the funds for COVID-19 relief aid and related expenditures for businesses, government entities and others. Some counties decided on the specific entities they were going to assist and set amounts to give each. 

Regarding its direct aid plan, Neosho County decided to go with three grant programs, to include:

Household Emergency Relief Program — for people affected by COVID-19 to help with rent, utilities and internet connectivity.

Response and Recovery Grant Program — helps with priorities like connectivity, workforce development, child care, food security and creating labor.

COVID-19 Agency Operational Relief Grant Program — helps with costs associated with operating losses, personal protective equipment, sanitization, etc. Under that program is a portal for an application, and it lists items required to accompany it.

“That is what we have encouraged the school districts to apply for,” Kent-Culp said of the Operational Relief Grant Program. 

She said there are set dates for what is covered and when, in accordance with the federal requirements under each phase. Information on these grants is available on the county’s website on the left-hand side, under CRF information.

In addition to the grants, she said, the disaster declaration for the state, approved by President Donald Trump, opens up public assistance funds available through FEMA, which covers things like PPE, sanitization, disinfectants, etc. School districts and community colleges all have the opportunity to apply for these additional FEMA funds. If the grant from FEMA is $100,000, Kent-Culp said the federal government pays 75% of that, the state pays 10%, and then the county would match the other 15%.  

Chanute USD 413 Superintendent Kellen Adams said Friday morning the district was just getting its paperwork completed through the Office of Emergency Relief for a FEMA grant, but it also had submitted receipts to the county under Phase 1 SPARK funding. Adams said while some of his peers in other counties were bragging they had already received funding, Chanute has not been notified of what it would be reimbursed under these first two rounds. The district first submitted receipts for Phase 1 to the county for reimbursement on Aug. 10. Adams was unaware of the commission’s grant approval just the night before.

Kent-Culp submitted $149,000 in reimbursement vouchers to the county commission Thursday night, including $65,000 to the Chanute USD 413 school district.

As of Monday, the district had still not been officially notified of the $65,000 in approved reimbursement. USD 413 board clerk Tamara Slane said based on her information, the district had requested $167,735 in reimbursements. They are unsure how much of that will be approved.

Presently, Adams said, they have not submitted their reimbursement request for Phase 2 funding, which is to include not only what they have spent recently, but also their planned expenses through Dec. 31 that can be claimed under SPARK.

“We certainly have a lot of expenses, so we’re anxiously awaiting that answer,” Adams said.

Chetopa-St. Paul USD 505 Superintendent Craig Bagshaw said he received word a month or so ago from Neosho County that the district would be reimbursed its requested amount for St. Paul.

“I am aware that the check is available and will get it this week,” Bagshaw said. “We only requested to be reimbursed for expenses we had already incurred, about $30,000. It was very easily done on a spreadsheet and Melanie was very helpful as well as insightful. It does take a little time and you need to maintain accuracy in your reporting, but not difficult at all.” 

Neosho County only learned Sept. 4 its plan for disbursement had been approved by the state.

Damman said Monday USD 101 submitted its paperwork for reimbursement the same time USD 413 did, but they have not heard anything from the county. However, by his statements, the district did not submit actual receipts for reimbursement as the other districts did. It submitted the form the county requested to submit to the state to show the needs to receive the federal funding.

“Our district submitted the initial paperwork for all COVID-related items to the county the first week of August. We were required to submit items so that the county could provide their report to the state for possible required needs in various entities. This report was a ‘wish list’ that our district could use assistance with. I know that everything on the list would not get approved, but it was many of the items that we knew we would need. The items included technology, cleaning supplies, prevention items and some equipment for various needs related to the virus. Because there were daily changes happening for opening up the school at that time, it was extremely difficult to determine the exact needs for the district,” Damman said.

“Once school started up, we then had a better idea for the items that would be needed moving forward. I continued to ask the county about reimbursement for items, but was not given approval on anything. Not having the budget to purchase extra stuff, we waited to spend any money. I was told around Aug. 6 to submit anything that we purchased for reimbursement. This is the list I mentioned above. Because we didn’t spend any money yet, we didn’t have a lot to be reimbursed for,” Damman said. “The week of Sept. 21 I was contacted by FEMA to complete a grant on their portal for future expenses that our district would incur. It wasn’t until last week that I was finally told that FEMA is not awarding any new grants after Sept. 14 because funds have not been approved.”

Kent-Culp said contrary to what was stated in The Erie Record on Oct. 8, or by Damman on Monday, all school districts and Neosho County Community College can apply for SPARK funding through the county, just has already been done, and no FEMA grant application is required, but it is another option if they chose it.

“The reason we did a grant program is so everyone has a chance to be on a level playing field. If we gave all of our money to X, Y and Z, then that means no one else would have that opportunity,” she said. “It was important to make sure we were good stewards of the money, but also that we were sharing it with those who would benefit. Cherry Street (Youth Center) isn’t a school district, and if we decided to give money only to the school districts and there was nothing left over for places like Cherry Street, then that would not be being good stewards.”

Kent-Culp said all of the districts were provided information and have been in touch with the company the county contracted with that developed the grant process, helping them move through the process. It all takes time to process, though. 

“We have to go through all of the receipts that were submitted to us from these agencies to decide what it will fall under. We had to wait until the state said, ‘Your plan is approved,’ before we could expend any money,” Kent-Culp said. “And there has been some misunderstandings about the kinds of things we will reimburse on. If we expend that money on things we are not supposed to, we have to pay that money back. We will go through that federal audit when this is all over with, and they will go through it with a fine-tooth comb, so if we reimburse on something that is not actually specifically covered under the COVID umbrella, we have to pay that back.”

She said districts have turned in receipts for reimbursement and once receipts have been approved, they have to be put through accounts payable to get checked out. 

“It is just the process,” she said. “We’ve only approved three or four grants. Nobody has been denied anything, but we have denied some receipts because they were things that are not covered. We’d love to cover a pizza party, but that isn’t going to be covered.”

She told commissioners Thursday that within the past two weeks, the county received 19 applications from agencies requesting operational assistance and 19 applications for household relief under the SPARK program.

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