School buses deliver meals in Blount County

Montvale Elementary School Principal Donna Russell (left), Alan Clinton and Malory Winters load meals onto a school bus to deliver to the New Blockhouse area for students from closed Montvale Elementary, Heritage Middle and Heritage High in March.

Public school directors hope the state will give them some details today for how they may spend a total of nearly $2.7 million in federal relief for education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blount County Schools expects about $1.96 million, Maryville City Schools $485,000 and Alcoa City Schools $249,000 under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which bases that portion of funding on the percentage of students from low-income families.

BCS Director Rob Britt told school board members during a meeting this week, “We know we’re going to have some skill gaps with students,” and the district might provide some type of instruction during traditional breaks, particularly the summer of 2021.

He also emphasized that with schools scheduled to reopen in late July, they still don’t know what spending may be necessary because of any new health guidelines at that time. Thermometers, sanitizing supplies and disposable cafeteria materials all were mentioned as possible needs during the meeting.

Now or later

Maryville Director Mike Winstead said schools will have until June 30, 2022, to spend the money and he appreciates the leeway.

“I’d just like to sit on that money,” he said, expecting the 2021-22 school year budget to be more difficult than the coming one, during which this district is receiving a significant increase in state funding.

In 2021-22, Maryville plans to replace 60% of its laptops, and he said, “I think that would be a great way to use that money,” freeing funds for other areas of the budget.

Meanwhile Alcoa Director Brian Bell is wondering how the money might be used in the 2020-21 budget that its school board is scheduled to vote on this month.

With projections for substantial decreases in sales tax revenue because of the pandemic, Bell said, “We’re proceeding with a lot of caution.”

Bus contracts paid

Although local school buses have not transported students since mid-March, after schools closed for spring break and the buildings didn’t reopen because of the pandemic and executive orders from Gov. Bill Lee, districts continued to pay contractors.

“While we think it is the right thing for us to honor our contracts during the school closure, we also had some motivation to do so through the CARES Act,” Winstead explained. “As a condition of receiving this grant money, the CARES Act states that the school district must continue to pay its employees and contractors to the ‘greatest extent practicable’ during this period of disruption or closures due to coronavirus.”

The school districts pay bus contracts in 10 monthly installments.

Blount County’s transportation coordinator, Kevin Wilner, echoed the comment that continuing to pay the bus contractors is the right thing to do, noting that otherwise the owners could not make payments on the buses.

Although they are not driving the usual more than 7,000 miles a day with Blount County students, Wilner said, “All of our 14 owners and most of the drivers have been involved in weekly food deliveries and/or delivering instructional materials to families during this time.”

Blount County’s cost is about $475,000 a month, and it required the owners each to sign an agreement that they would continue to pay the approximately 120 drivers.

Maryville pays about $81,000 a month for 21 buses and drivers. Winstead said the current contract does not include provisions for a shutdown, but the district may look at that in the future.

Alcoa pays about $30,000 per month for eight buses and paid the full amount for nine months. “Our contractor has agreed to reduce the final payment to allow for the ‘no cost’ of fuel since the buses are not rolling,” Tom Shamblin, director of finance for the district, said in an email response to The Daily Times. “We have not received the final invoice, so we do not yet know the savings.”

Calls to a representative for Rocky Top School Buses, which has the contract for Alcoa, Maryville and some Blount County buses, were not returned by press time. Alcoa and Maryville have not used school buses for deliveries during the COVID-19 closure.

Recruiting school bus drivers had been a challenge while the economy was booming, as well as hiring for other support positions such as cafeteria workers and teaching assistants. “We are seeing an increase in the number of people interested in those positions,” Winstead said this week.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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