OPINION: $40 Million in Pandemic Recovery Funds Provides Opportunity For City Leadership To Be Innovative & Bold

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By Adam Freudberg

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FRAMINGHAM – The hopeful end of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery phase has resulted in a large federal funding allocation to our city. The federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides more than $40 million to the city for a variety of uses over the next 2.5 years. 

$14.3 million is specifically for the school district to respond to and help our school community recover from the pandemic in categories such as mitigating lost instructional time and learning loss, supporting student social-emotional and mental health, and expanding upon already made infrastructure upgrades to further reduce the risk of virus transmission. The city’s $27 million has broader usage rules. 

Together, these allocations provide the city with perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to chip away at some of the many projects and initiatives the fiscal limitations, recessions, and the local water/sewer fiscal crisis have caused to be deferred or cancelled.

As decision makers move forward, I believe choices should be made after a series of collaborative conversations and public hearings.

Together with an eye towards innovation and bold ideas, the long-term fiscal health of the city, and pandemic recovery and renewal, the city can make a groundbreaking difference for Framingham’s residents if a smart and strategic plan is thoughtfully developed and implemented. 

A little known, yet extremely important committee within our city government has stepped up to attempt to seek a collaborative and transparent process for these funds to be allocated. The Strategic Initiatives and Financial Oversight Committee (SIFOC) was created when Framingham became a city to “advise the Mayor, City Council and School Committee on the status of Framingham’s long range strategic plan…the state of the municipal economy, sufficiency of municipal revenues, and other fiscal matters…”

In recent months the volunteers on the SIFOC have truly found their way. After years of challenges, the group is now thriving. I watched all of their meetings over the last few months and am impressed with their vision and goals to support our community’s fiscal health, while also ensuring the core services and values we have like public safety, education, and recreation remain vibrant. 

Led by the Mayor’s appointee David Mawhinney, City Council’s appointee Mary Kate Feeney, and School Committee appointee Joel Francis, these three SIFOC leaders teamed up with the rest of the members to put together an invitation and structure for a summit this Tuesday to discuss the $40 million of federal funding.

And thank goodness they did. Besides the multiple School Committee meetings and public hearings in front of School Committee members and FPS and our outreach, there has been little to no conversation to date between public bodies, municipal departments, and the Mayor’s Office with specific ideas and projects to fund.

The SIFOC has stepped up to facilitate this important discussion and I am grateful. 

Government cannot and should not do it all. Yet it can be an incredible facilitator and driving force towards positive change. So let’s be innovative with this opportunity. I have a variety of questions and ideas.

How can one time investments reduce future operating budgets? How can pandemic recovery be accelerated with these funds? 

The rules allow direct grants to nonprofits. What nonprofits can the city work with to creatively receive direct specialized services for recovery?

Together, the federal allocations can be looked at as one total pool for the city. Interdepartmental coordination will provide the opportunity to cost share and maximize municipal staff time on joint topics of interest in the purview of Parks, Technology, Facilities, Schools, and/or Health offices.

For example, what kind of outdoor enhancements can we make at our city parks, athletic fields, and playgrounds which can also support children, after school programs, seniors, and others?

What kind of mental health and substance use prevention initiatives can the schools and health department work on together to truly tackle the immense challenges and inequities this pandemic brought into the forefront? 

How can the annual capital plan process be supported and the amount borrowed be reduced to avoid higher costs? I was pleased to hear the City Chief Financial Officer said the capital backlog list would be reviewed as the city determines how to allocate the city portion of the funds.

After a rough year with remote, hybrid, in person, masks, quarantines, COVID-19 testing, zoom, google meet, and so many more challenges, how can the school district use this funding to help students and educators immediately this summer and fall?

At the last School Committee meeting members and FPS staff discussed initial concepts. I suggested we focus on summer programming (up to $1 million is already reserved for this summer), implement the equity audit’s recommendations aimed at those most impacted by the pandemic, seek feedback from staff and families, and maintain and enhance pandemic ventilation upgrades. 

I also floated that we can look at ways to help parent teacher organizations (PTOs), who also had to shift, do things differently, and lost out on normal fundraising and activities.

We should consider one time grants to all PTOs who prove they raised less funding due to the pandemic, as the federal rules require.

One PTO raised $25,500 in the last year before the pandemic.

They then raised $5500 during it.

Can we help impacted PTOs, while making the grant conditional with specific rules to align all allocated funds to specific FPS strategic plan outcomes? It is worth a look. 

During the meeting others suggested the school portion of the federal funding be used to ramp up tutoring programs, expand PreK, and build up community-wide WiFi access. 

Whatever ends up being allocated, these specific ideas are a great start before the school district’s plan is finalized and put into action later this summer. Join us for the June 23rd School Committee meeting and share your thoughts during our public hearing. The agenda and background materials can be found here: https://www.framingham.k12.ma.us/scmeetingmaterial 

The SIFOC Summit is scheduled for Tuesday June 22 at 5 p.m. The agenda can be found here: http://framinghamma.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=14&ID=5061&Inline=True 

The city’s $40 million in funding will go too fast with all of the needs, yet with strategic targeting, the impact it can make is huge. The potential is there to do this right. The stakes are too high to plan in silos. Thank you to the SIFOC for bringing everyone together. 

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Adam Freudberg represents District 4 on the Framingham School Committee and serves as committee chair. The views expressed are his alone and are not submitted on behalf of the committee. 

editor

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