With millions of dollars of COVID relief money set to run out in 2024, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools is looking for new, sustainable funding sources to pay for programs and initiatives to help it meet its goals.
The school board recently approved a resolution in support of a nonprofit collaborative that will raise money for the school district. Though it will act similarly to a foundation, the school district is calling it an education collaborative for the time being.
The education collaborative is in its early stage of development, and what it will eventually look like could change over the coming months.
“As we look over the next year, it’s going to be critical to look at how do we replace that funding once it expires,” said Paula Wilkins, the executive director of strategy and innovation for the school district. “The community has always been supportive.”
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Some potential early backers wanted to be sure that the collaborative has the support of the school board and Superintendent Tricia McManus.
Wilkins presented an overview of the collaborative at a meeting recently, which led to the the school board unanimously approving the resolution.
For her part, McManus said in a letter of support that the ongoing challenges brought on by COVID have “revealed a critical need for a sustainable, long-term, and responsive strategy to support our community’s ongoing educational crisis.”
Several school districts including Asheville City Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Union County Schools and Henderson County Schools, have foundations that provide them with money.
These foundations offer everything from large-scale, district-wide grants to smaller grants for teachers with innovative projects.
Board member Marilyn Parker said she has wanted the district to have a foundation for years.
“One reason I feel like we need something like this is because a long time ago, when technology was new, we had to go to the community and raise $3 million to put technology in the classroom. We had to have a capital campaign like churches to raise money,” she said. “(Fundraising) needs to be ongoing and not always in flux.”
The federal COVID relief dollars, known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, will have provided $215 million for the school district by the time the program expires in 2024. Established to lessen the impact of COVID on school districts, the funds have been used in a variety of ways, including teacher retention bonuses, buying Chromebooks and adding literacy coaches and mental health counselors.
At this point, it’s clear that the work around learning loss and mental health will need to continue beyond 2024.
Project Impact, a six-year fundraising initiative that brought in about $22 million, ended in June. Conceived by local business leaders, Project Impact paid for the expansion of pre-kindergarten, summer learning programs and staff development among other initiatives. It focused primarily on younger students in the school district.
The Reynolds American Foundation was the lead financial sponsor, pledging nearly $12 million in contributions.
While the school district is taking the lead role in getting the collaborative started, the collaborative will eventually act as its own entity with its own staff and board of directors.
According to a timeline presented to the school board, the school district is in the process of securing seed money for the collaborative and will soon begin working with a consultant to set up the collaborative’s nonprofit status.
It hopes to begin hiring staff members and have an agreement with the school district in place by next June.
The collaborative would work closely with the school district in identifying areas of need, Wilkins said.
Its board would include a school board member as well as students, parents, educators, community leaders and donors.
“We want to make sure the school board is involved, and that the superintendent is highly involved,” Wilkins said.
Board member Alex Bohannon said he likes the idea of the collaborative but wants to make sure it operates in lockstep with the school district’s goals.
“We need it to be connected to the district,” Wilkins said in response. “We need the district to be a critical partner, to have a voice, and we also need the community to stand right alongside.”
Board member Dana Caudill Jones said she hopes that the collaborative will be sure to include the voices of people across the county and not just those in Winston-Salem.
“There will be more buy-in that way and, at the end of the day, more money to be a pipeline to meet the needs of the superintendent, the board and staff as they see fit,” she said.