SAN BENITO — The federal government is fining the San Benito school district about $780,000 for improperly administering some money received to offset losses stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, district officials said.

The district incorrectly spent Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, money to fund some special education department staffing costs, school board members said.

Since July 2020, the district has received $45.2 million in ESSER funds, drawing down $20.6 million, district records show.

So far, the district has spent $8.9 million on payroll; $2.8 million on professional and contracted services; $6.2 million on supplies and materials; $162,475 on other operating costs; $834,000 on capital outlay; and $1.5 million on indirect costs, records show.

Now, the district has about two years to spend its ESSER balance, which stands at $24.5 million.

During a meeting, school board members said a past administration failed to follow the ESSER program’s “maintenance of effort” guidelines in spending some of the money.

“This funding comes, in certain cases, with very special direction as to what can be bought, how it can be spent, what it’s meant for,” board President Ramiro Moreno told trustees during the finance committee meeting July 18.

“We need to make sure that from here on out moving forward, the rest of these funds that we have to expend, that we are following protocol, that we’re following the guidelines that the federal government is providing for us,” he said. “There’s a thing that we refer to as maintenance of effort that was not followed and because of that … somebody’s responsible for this — we’re having to pay $800,000 almost — that’s a little inflated but over $700,000, because our maintenance of effort was not met and that’s a concern.”

“I also want to make sure people understand that this is before your time and this was not necessarily under your jurisdiction,” Moreno told interim Superintendent Theresa Servellon. “But under your jurisdiction, you will make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

The money was incorrectly spent to pay some special education department staff, Servellon told board members.

“We did not meet our maintenance of effort with our special education personnel,” she said. “We have to maintain effort and show that we are using other funding, additional funds, when we look at our state, federal and local funds. There has to be a maintenance of effort in showing that we are divvying up the money by those three entities and we failed to do so when it came to our special education because we did blanket-cover three schools. We covered all special education personnel there and we didn’t maintain effort so we will be reimbursing over $750,000 from our ESSER funds.”

Money placed in district fund balance

During discussion, board member Ariel Cruz said the money was placed in the district’s fund balance.

“So we supplanted $20 million and we were able to put $20 million into our fund balance so we have that $20 million in our fund balance,” she said.

In response, Servellon told Cruz the district was fined about $780,000 for “incorrectly” spending the money.

“If you’re talking about maintenance of effort, they were allowed to supplant,” she said. “The thing was that it was a blanket supplant, so if we would have been more strategic and looked at those numbers more carefully, then we wouldn’t have just said, ‘Then all of special ed.’”

Amid discussion, board member Janie Lopez said the district’s previous administration mismanaged the money.

“It’s very, very infuriating to know that we have to pay almost $800,000 back because the money was mismanaged, and it’s very upsetting because those $800,000 — if you think about it, it’s almost $1 million — it’s not something we can get back within a month,” she said. “It can take years before you can get $1 million or to even save $1 million, and to have to pay back $800,000 that our kids could have used, under the previous leadership, is very, very upsetting.”

Board members did not know the money was being spent incorrectly, Lopez told district officials.

“When you all come to us as a district, we’re trusting what you all are telling us,” she said. “We’re trusting what that administration is telling us, we’re trusting that leadership is knowledgeable and able to do what they’re supposed to do. For us to find out our kids are going to miss out on $800,000, that’s very, very upsetting because the people that were in charge did not manage this correctly and they didn’t bring us the right information.”