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Groton, Ledyard schools seek to use last year's student count for federal aid

The Groton and Ledyard school districts are concerned they will receive less federal education funding, as the pandemic makes counting eligible children this year more difficult than in the past.

Both communities receive support under the U.S. Department of Education’s Impact Aid Program that gives grant funding to communities with children who live in military housing or sovereign Native American land, as well as some funding for children whose parents work on federally impacted properties, such as the Navy base or Coast Guard Academy, according to the Department of Education and school officials.

But with more students learning at home remotely and spending fewer days at school, Groton and Ledyard school officials are concerned some students will not be properly counted when calculating the funding amount.

“We are extremely concerned about an undercount,” Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said. The school district, which has about 1,000 military dependents, receives about $3.5 million in funding — about 4.5% of its education budget — so if the district missed counting 100 of the children living in military housing, it would mean a $350,000 loss, he said.

The school districts distributed forms for this year’s count, but are asking the federal government to allow them to use last year’s numbers to ensure steady funding, school officials said.

A bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, would allow the school districts to apply the number of students from the 2019-20 school year, rather than this year, toward this year’s calculation to keep funding stable. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, passed the House of Representatives and now awaits action by the Senate, according to Courtney.

“Given the disruption of normal school enrollment caused by COVID-19, this bill was necessary to make sure that ‘host communities’ that support military families are not penalized by the adoption of remote and hybrid learning,” Courtney said in a statement. “In eastern Connecticut, the Groton and Ledyard school districts in particular risked losing significant funds caused by a lower student count, and are diverting scarce resources to conduct this audit at this unprecedented time when schools are already stretched thin. Getting the routine paperwork submitted to verify funding is anything but routine this year.”

Ledyard Public Schools Superintendent Jason Hartling said by email that his district receives about $1.6 million in funding related to Impact Aid, representing about 5% of its education budget.

“More than 850 Ledyard Public School students live on or have parents that work on tax-exempt federal properties like the Coast Guard, the Navy, and our local Tribal Nations, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans,” he said in a statement. “We had significant concerns that due to the pandemic, getting the documentation and the application process 100% complete would be next to impossible and would have resulted in a loss of critical financial support that helps us provide quality public education to our students.”

Courtney said by phone that the program, which offsets property tax losses, is based on an accurate count, which normally is as straightforward as handing out documents and receiving responses from students and families, and then submitting the formula-based reimbursement request to the government. But the pandemic has complicated that process, and districts face getting delayed or no responses.

Courtney and his Republican co-sponsor both recognized that the communities they represent faced the same issue: that if school communities have to rely on a student count at a time when students are not in school each day, the risk of an undercount is very high.

“This bill is enormously important to Groton; the Town depends on the Impact Aid Grant to support the education of over 1,000 military dependents,” Graner said in a statement.

k.drelich@theday.com

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