| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
SARASOTA COUNTY – Sarasota County is set to expand its internet coverage to reach at least 18,000 students enrolled in remote learning using federal coronavirus relief funds.
Through funding received from the CARES Act, county officials will distribute $343,000 of its allotted funds to Comcast – a Philadelphia-based internet service provider – with the goal to extend internet service to students who may not otherwise have access for the next six months.
To qualify, students must be enrolled in at least one need-based program, including the national school lunch or housing assistance program. Acknowledging that Comcast only covers a portion of Sarasota County, officials will also approach Frontier for additional services.
This month, the Sarasota County branch of the NAACP and the Coalition of Business Associations proposed to earmark money for the 34234 zip code, which includes Newtown.
Speakers talked about the need to direct money to Newtown – especially to remedy the lack of internet and WiFi for families.
While elected leaders on Monday unanimously agreed to move forward with a broader, countywide plan, that decision did not come without some major reservations.
At least 5,800 students are already enrolled in remote learning, records show.
It would take $343,000 to provide access to those students. The county would potentially only receive $229,000 in reimbursements from the federal government. That means county taxpayers are liable for about $114,000 for a program that would end in February.
The county would also potentially be on the hook for providing additional funding for the remainder of the school year. That could cost taxpayers about $457,000.
“This is a very frustrating conversation,” Moran said, noting that the county would not shut off internet access until after the school year.
The added liability also troubled Vice Chairman Alan Maio.
“I can’t see us stopping it at the end of February because we’ll get blamed for stopping a service that some of us think wasn’t ours to do in the first place,” Maio said. “So it’s a line we’re walking here, but I believe we have to do this.”
The Sarasota County School Board is a separate taxing enity and officials are bracing for a potential steep decline in enrollment, which could bring a potential $20 million reduction in state funding.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted that potential decline, saying “they’re about to see a world of hurt.”
“The only thing I care about this issue is that it gets done,” Ziegler said.
Commissioner Nancy Detert initially said she wouldn’t support the program until she knew how much the School Board had dedicated from the federal government. Detert also expressed discomfort about stepping into a responsibility that should be under the School Board’s purview.
“We’re not in the education business,” Detert said. “I’m not going to ever be in a position to vote against children and needy students. It’s just not going to happen but I think we’re the wrong body working on the wrong problem.”