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Wauwatosa finance committee recommends denying proposal to use pandemic relief funds for school district COVID-19 testing site

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 12/2/2021 Alec Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Wauwatosa School District Administration building is pictured here. © Screenshot The Wauwatosa School District Administration building is pictured here.

The city of Wauwatosa Financial Affairs Committee has recommended denying a proposal to use pandemic relief funds to pay for a mobile COVID-19 testing site for the Wauwatosa School District.

Committee members unanimously denied a proposal at its Nov. 30 meeting that would have used $17,078.93 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for a mobile office trailer in the east parking lot of the Fisher Building to be used as a testing site.

The trailer would have included electricity and heat so it could have operated through the winter. The funding would have included an ADA accessible ramp, recurring monthly fees, electrical, and set up and take down of the trailer, according to a Wauwatosa Health Department memo.

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Committee members who spoke on the proposal, along with Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said they opposed the project because the services would be offered only to district students, staff and families and not to all city residents.

Ald. Jason Kofroth also said it didn't make sense for the city to spend its ARPA funds in such a way when the school district has its own board, ARPA funds and budget.

"I won't be supportive of it because I think this is crossing the whole lines of separation of us and the school district right now," Kofroth said during the meeting. 

According to the city website, Wauwatosa has received $24 million in ARPA funds. The city planned to hold a community meeting at 6 p.m. Dec. 2 at Wauwatosa West High School for residents to provide input on how the funds should be spent.

Finalization of how the city's funds will be allocated is scheduled to take place at a Wauwatosa Common Council workshop meeting Jan. 18.

The city's website noted that ARPA funds can be used only for public health needs, such as funding COVID-19 mitigation efforts, addressing negative economic impacts, replacing lost public sector revenue, providing premium pay for essential workers and investing in water or sewer infrastructure.

School district testing

Wauwatosa School District communications coordinator Sarah Frittitta said in an email that the district will continue to offer on-site COVID-19 testing for students and staff members who become sick during the school day, in partnership with Summit Labs. Testing takes place at each of the district's school buildings. 

"If a student or staff member becomes ill during the school day, a Summit representative will come to their building and administer a COVID-19 test," Frittitta said in a follow-up email.

Frittitta also said that the district's primary focus is on supporting student's academic achievement, social-emotional health and physical well-being, and said that is how the district intends to use its pandemic relief funds, specifically the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund III (ESSER III) grant program, which is authorized under ARPA.

"Please note that the district used a significant portion of its ESSER I and ESSER II for PPE and other mitigation strategies. Academic recovery and attending to the mental health of our students is our primary concern with any additional funding from the federal government," Frittitta said.

In a Nov. 30 memo to the financial affairs committee, Wauwatosa Health Department officer Laura Stephens said the school district had opted into the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' free school-based COVID-19 testing program for teachers, students, staff and families for the 2021-22 school year. The school district was matched with Summit Clinical Labs to provide testing.

The testing program is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state DHS program "is designed to provide convenient and reliable testing so that schools can operate safely and focus on providing quality education."

Stephens said in her memo that while the district's testing program provides optional on-demand testing for students and staff, it's only available to those who become sick during the school day. 

While Summit provides testing at no charge, the school has to provide a location for the testing.

Stephens said the district had tried for the past couple months to establish a site for additional testing, which has been challenging. That additional testing would include students or staff who became symptomatic before the school day starts or individuals who need a negative test to return from quarantine. The district also hopes to conduct regular testing for students in higher-risk activities such as band, choir and close contact sports. 

Stephens also said in her memo that the district and health department wanted to avoid having a testing site at a district school to avoid having those who are symptomatic spread the virus.

The proposal and the committee's recommendation is scheduled to go before the full Common Council on Dec. 7.

Contact Alec Johnson at (262) 875-9469 or alec.johnson@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlecJohnson12.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wauwatosa finance committee recommends denying proposal to use pandemic relief funds for school district COVID-19 testing site

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