BERRYVILLE — The Clarke County School Board will return almost $1.4 million in unspent funds to the county to use toward expanding broadband availability countywide.

All Points Broadband and the Clarke County Board of Supervisors are seeking a state grant to help extend broadband, also known as high-speed internet, to many parts of the county lacking it.

“The board of supervisors can do what it wants with the money” after it’s returned, Superintendent Chuck Bishop told the school board, which recently voted to give it back.

However, the supervisors have indicated the money — if the board returned it — would be put toward the broadband project.

Supervisors Chairman David Weiss said he and his four colleagues are “extremely appreciative” of the school board’s decision.

“It shows they’re (interested in) doing what’s best for the county,” said Weiss, who represents the Buckmarsh District.

Bishop explained in an email to The Winchester Star that the unspent $1.38 million stemmed from “the unusual circumstances during the 2020-2021 school year.”

The school division received unexpected federal COVID-19 pandemic relief dollars to use toward some expenses, he wrote.

Some vacant positions weren’t filled due to an enrollment decrease, Bishop wrote. And, transportation costs were lower than anticipated.

Students learned at home via the internet while classrooms were closed amid the pandemic. So “we didn’t run buses five days per week” as usual, Bishop continued, and “athletic and field trips were reduced or canceled altogether.”

Outside Berryville and Boyce, its two incorporated towns, Clarke County lacks broadband in many locations. Some places in the mostly rural county have no internet service at all.

County officials maintain that broadband has become a vital utility, much like water/sewer and electricity, because many people now do business online and students now use the internet to study. That became apparent while classrooms were closed during the pandemic, they say.

All Points is working with Clarke County, plus other Shenandoah Valley localities and their electricity providers, to obtain a Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant for the regional broadband extension project.

According to company CEO Jimmy Carr, All Points estimates the total cost of Clarke’s portion of the project at roughly $23.5 million. Of that amount, the company intends to cover $9.6 million and use VATI funds to cover $8.6 million.

Clarke County’s share is estimated at $5.4 million. The county plans to put some of its pandemic relief funds toward that share.

Following a motion from Vice Chairwoman Katie Kerr-Hobert, the school board voted unanimously to return the $1.38 million to the supervisors.

During their October meeting, board member Jonathan Turkel suggested using the money to improve teacher salaries to encourage them to stay with the school division.

Broadband is important, he said, but “to me the No. 1 priority is staff recruitment and retention.”

The money being returned basically is one-time funding. Giving teachers a pay increase requires money that will be available year after year.

“You’d hate to give someone a salary raise this year and take it back next year,” or to cut expenses to continue the raises, said Bishop.

Expanding broadband is “something that benefits both the county and the schools,” he said.

Roughly 27% of students countywide don’t have broadband access at home, Bishop mentioned.

“That was one of our biggest problems” when the schools switched to virtual learning during the pandemic, he added.

“Having equal internet access is an equalizer in education,” Kerr-Hobert said.

— Contact Mickey Powell at mpowell@winchesterstar.com

(2) comments

harrdware

Thanks to the School Board for this vote. The rural areas of Clarke County desperately need better Broadband Internet access. A one time investment in Broadband infrastructure will benefit not only the students when doing homework, but also the many home-based businesses in the county as well. Access to High speed internet is as important to our citizens nowadays, as wired telephone lines were for folks in the old days.

cfmaurer

Ditto on what Hardware said. Can’t wait to cancel my HughsNet account.

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