Technology, tutors and T-shirts: How Idaho schools will spend a $440 million federal windfall

Idaho school districts have never had this much money.

Three rounds of congressional coronavirus relief have injected some $680 million into K-12 coffers across the state in less than two years — good for about a third of Idaho’s annual public schools budget.

Most of that one-time money, intended to help students most affected by the pandemic recover academically and emotionally, has not yet been spent. Though, all of it is now available.

With only 1% of the latest and largest round of federal relief spent, some districts are scrambling to put the money to work. Others are hesitating.

There’s ample pressure for them to meet the moment. And fast.

Standardized tests meant to measure proficiency in reading and math as well as college readiness all suggest Idaho students have fallen farther behind the state’s goals since the pandemic began. Idaho’s statewide shutdown of in-person instruction only lasted from March 2020 until the end of the semester, but districts continued yo-yoing between hybrid, remote and in-person instruction into the following school year, and coronavirus-induced absences continued to force a smattering of school closures into the 2021-22 school year.

“But it’s also a really rewarding time in regards to — we have some flexibility and some ability to really hone in on where our kids’ learning loss is, what our kids need, so we can individualize their education,” said Derek Bub, superintendent of the West Ada School District, Idaho’s largest.

After it was once rejected, Idaho’s plan to spend the third and largest round of so-called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) garnered approval from the U.S. Department of Education in September, giving schools access to the last of the money.

Meanwhile, nearly all of Idaho’s 180 school districts and charters have had to draft plans of their own, showing how they’ll use the 90% majority of Idaho’s ESSER III money that they control. They were required to post those plans on their websites and submit them to the Idaho State Department of Education by the end of October.

Now, as the State Department concludes its first review of the plans, EdNews analyzed the 151 plans that were accessible via links on the department’s website.

Total Funding
Per Student
How was money divvied up?
Districts received all three rounds of ESSER money through the Title I formula, a shortcut lawmakers used to send a higher share of money per-pupil to districts that educate more low-income students. (Find out how much Idaho districts received per-pupil from ESSER III above.)

What’s in the plans, by the numbers

EdNews read and analyzed all school district and charter spending plans it could find on those organizations’ websites, where plans are required to be posted. That analysis showed most districts plan to spend money on masks and cleaning supplies, but plans vary widely beyond that.

New Hires: Most districts and charters, 135 total, plan to add to their staffs or already have, by EdNews’ count. Fifty will hire new certified teachers or pay current educators out of federal relief funds. Ninety-five districts and charters plan to employ paraprofessionals like teacher’s assistants and custodial workers, or take on new mental health support staffers like school counselors and psychologists.

Still, district plans continue to reveal a patchwork of commitments to students’ mental health, some completely skirting mention of social and emotional supports despite federal requirements. Such was the case on EdNews’ first review of the plans last month.

More Time Learning: Districts and charters are required by federal law to put at least one fifth of their money into reversing learning loss from the pandemic. In Idaho, 106 of those districts and charters will do so through one-on-one and small group tutoring, or by intervening with individualized help for students who have fallen behind. Another 69 will or already have bankrolled summer learning programs. The same number have planned for before- and after-school programs.

HVAC Upgrades: Citing need for increased airflow indoors during the pandemic, 85 districts and charters will spend to increase ventilation, predominantly through HVAC system upgrades. Another 71 districts and charters will make other capital improvements, renovating aging buildings, raising new gymnasiums and expanding cafeterias.

Tech: Many districts have already funneled federal dollars into Wi-Fi hotspots and internet-enabled devices like laptops as schools have turned to remote learning, and the trend is on track to continue. Fifty-nine districts and charters plan on purchasing devices and otherwise upgrading their technology with ESSER III money.

Attracting Employees: As worker shortages squeeze school operations in Idaho and nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education recently urged schools to spend ESSER funding to hire staff and raise pay, as Chalkbeat reported. Sixteen Idaho districts and charters had already planned to do just that, writing a mix of hiring bonuses and salary boosts into their spending plans.

Flexible funds

The federal government has given districts and charters wide latitude in spending ESSER III money, broadly granting them authority to cover expenses that sustain school operations during the pandemic. The result is showing up in Idaho spending plans, which could test the flexibility of the feds’ intentions.

Seven districts and charters have proposed buying new playground equipment, saying it will help promote social distancing. One of them, the Whitepine School District, also suggested it will buy district t-shirts for all its enrollees “to make all students feel more inclusive.”

It’s not alone. The Cottonwood School District floated buying district “attire,” also pegging its purchase to inclusivity, but Cottonwood’s plan didn’t further specify what that attire would look like.

The Hagerman School District didn’t lay out any plans for a uniform but did slot $3,600 to buy sewing machines.

The Madison School District fleshes out some of the most details in the state about its plans to backfill teacher salaries and benefits, supplement pay for more paraprofessionals and build out programs to combat educational setbacks. But it also includes plans to purchase an “emergency backpack” at a “very high cost” for every district classroom, each one equipped with supplies ranging from survival tools like light sticks and nylon rope to toys like a beach ball and a deck of cards.

The Preston School District plans to buy a motivational book called “FISH!: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results” for all its employees “to address social, emotional, and other health.”

Some of those more novel plans for the money aren’t drawing heightened scrutiny from State Department of Education reviewers, said department federal programs director Karen Seay.

Given federal guidance, if “an LEA can connect an expenditure with COVID-19 either directly or indirectly, and the expense is necessary and reasonable, and is allowable, then it will be approved,” Seay wrote by email this month. “For example, adding additional playground equipment to provide more social distancing is an approved expenditure.”

The department has already reviewed all district plans once, but it won’t update the status of those reviews until closer to the end of the month, Seay said.

But some had already been turned away by the State Department of Education for revisions due to their vagueness as of Nov. 23, and other plans have refused to detail any intentions for the money until district funding pictures become clearer later in the school year. Notably, flaws and gaps in districts’ plans won’t cause them to lose any of their money. And the State Department doesn’t reject or deny districts’ requests to have expenses reimbursed out of the ESSER funds allotted to them, according to Seay. These requests are either approved or returned for additional information.

Plans are also short on numbers, nearly across the board. Only a baker’s dozen included any numerical breakdown of how they plan to spend the influx of money; those account for 8.6% of the plans EdNews reviewed.

Some districts failed to show they will target services toward students most affected by the pandemic, including English language learners, low-income students and students of color.

Others don’t say much at all. The Dietrich district’s plan doesn’t make any commitments, simply saying the principal will bring proposals to the board. The Challis School District’s plan says officials are in the “beginning stages” of forming a plan, and will hear public input on its plan in March 2022, despite an unenforced deadline coming and going two months ago.

A long way to go

Districts still have until September 2024 to spend their ESSER III money, or September 2025 if the state receives a waiver. At the pace money is being spent, districts will need the time.

While the first round of federal funding has mostly been tapped, only 31% of the second round and 1% of the third round have been drawn down by districts and charters, as of Dec. 6. The grand total: 16% has been “drawn down,” or retroactively reimbursed to districts.

Current and past school officials offer a web of explanations, but the most frequently cited reason behind the slow start — of those offered in the spending plans, at least — just went by the wayside.

Many have pointed to the state’s funding of schools based on average daily attendance, rather than based on total enrollment. When spending plans were submitted, the state planned to default to funding based on average daily attendance — which is more sensitive to pandemic-related absences than enrollment-based funding — after a one-year switch to enrollment-based funding.

But earlier this month, the State Board of Education temporarily switched Idaho back to enrollment-based funding for a second year in a row in an effort to assuage concerns, as EdNews reported.

“I’m hoping after this next week, folks will feel a little more secure,” State Board Chief Planning and Policy Officer Tracie Bent told EdNews the Monday before the decision.

Still, the few districts that did put numbers to their pledges are budgeting to spend federal money relatively evenly across this school year and next. And hesitant districts have pointed to other perceived causes for concern, like the Legislature’s decision to freeze the rainy-day fund for public schools, which in recent years has been used to balance the public schools budget after chronic under forecasts of education costs in State Department budget requests.

Other hesitancies were less specific, like those of the Cambridge School District. It answered nearly every question asked of it on the template for ESSER III plans the same way: “We don’t know what will come in the next year or two relating to COVID-19, so we are currently holding the funds until further notice.”

Whatever the justification, the Cambridge district isn’t alone. The State Department hasn’t reported any ESSER III spending for some 110 districts and charters. That’s drawn frustration from members of the Legislature’s powerful House-Senate budget committee — particularly Republican Idaho Falls Rep. Wendy Horman.

“Why is the money not getting out the door?” Horman questioned, as she has publicly, in an interview this month. “It’s been a problem since ESSER I.”

School officials’ complicated and sometimes competing answers to that question aside, Bent said too slow of a start to spending could prove problematic.

“We’ve encouraged (schools) to move forward (spending the money). Because if they wait too long, they’re going to be less effective,” said Bent. “You don’t want to put things off because if they don’t start till next year, then they’ve missed this whole opportunity.”

This story is the first installment in Following Federal Money, an Idaho Education News deep dive into schools’ spending of coronavirus relief funds. This effort is supported by a fellowship from the Education Writers Association. 

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday