Federal CARES Act funding helps schools weather a storm

Idaho schools prioritized investing in online learning, education technology and financial bonuses for teachers with their share of $173 million in federal emergency relief money.

Although some of the CARES Act money came with strings attached and specific use requirements like technology, blended learning or social-emotional learning, K-12 districts and schools had discretion in how they used much of the money.

Idaho Education News made requested breakdowns of CARES Act allocations and funding sources for K-12 schools under Idaho’s public records law. Those records show the state dispersed $173 million is federal money across Idaho’s public schools and charters.

Many districts, including Idaho Falls and Nampa, put some of the money toward one-time COVID duty pay for educators.

Carrie Smith, Idaho Falls human resources and finance director, said the move was in recognition of the extra work and duties teachers took on during the pandemic, including extra lesson preparation work and classroom sanitizing.

“It meant a lot to our teachers to be able to receive those in a year that has been very hard for them in many ways,” Smith said. “We’re appreciative of what the governor and the different groups have done to help support education.”

Alex Adams, administrator of the Division of Financial Management, said Gov. Brad Little and state officials wanted to give schools as much freedom as possible when using the money. State officials also wanted to support schools as they prepared for the uncertainty of reopening.

“It appears a lot of schools are choosing to use it for bonuses for teachers to reflect the historic circumstances they are working under,” Adams said. “Others are using it to reimburse costs and free up money downstream for other uses.”

The $173 million only represents a portion of Idaho’s overall share of federal CARES Act money.

  • Colleges and universities received $49 million, with much of that going to students.
  • Idaho families are splitting up $50 million in Strong Families Strong Students grants due to be paid out by Dec. 30.
  • There was also $10 million for personal protective equipment in schools.
  • Another $21 million went for COVID-19 testing for school staff.
  • And other state agencies and programs also received CARES Act money.

For the $99 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds used to offset the budget holdbacks, the state carved the money up based on enrollment calculations. The state sent out about $315 per student using 2019-20 enrollment data, Adams said. Of the $99 million, $565,200 went to Idaho Education Services for the Deaf and Blind.

Schools’ total combined payments from the different allocations ranged from $17.3 million to West Ada to $46,000 for tiny Prairie Elementary.

Here’s a closer look at how three districts prioritized CARES Act dollars

West Ada: $17.3 million

The state’s largest school district focused on reaching a 1:1 ratio on students and devices, providing teachers with extra duty pay.

West Ada spent about $1 million in CARES Act money to partially offset costs to get devices to 1:1, chief financial officer Jonathan Gillen said.

The district also spent $6.3 million for staff salaries and benefits. For eligible fulltime employees, that meant a one-time bonus of $1,500.

West Ada also paid to bring staff in over the summer for curriculum development, purchased extra books and curricular needs and paid for “noon duties” for staff helping in the buildings.

The district spent about $800,000 on PPE, bought connectivity hot spots, paid for two days of professional development training and used it to reimburse health services staff wages and other coronavirus related expenses.

At a time when West Ada was wrestling with state holdbacks and its first decrease in enrollment in decades, West Ada was able to use the relief money to focus on staff, technology, devices and protective equipment.

“We’re really grateful for these dollars, they’re coming at a time that was really helpful to our ability to meet the needs of our kids,” Gillen said.

Idaho Falls: $5.4 million

The Eastern Idaho district invested in launching its online academy remote schools for elementary and secondary students and giving teachers COVID duty pay bonuses.

The district spent about $1.65 million on COVID pay. For full time teachers that translated to a $2,500 stipend.

For many Idaho Falls teachers, the COVID pay allows them to make a little more than last year — even with the state’s budget holdbacks and the state freeze on the career ladder salary allocation model. But Smith said the loss of leadership premiums due to budget holdbacks hurt financially. Some teachers had earned a few thousand dollars’ worth of leadership premiums that are not being paid out this year. Those will be taking home less money this year.

The district also had to move quickly to open its first online schools, Smith said. Idaho Falls spent about $487,000 to pay teachers working in the online schools for the first four months of the academic year.

Idaho Falls also invested in social-emotional learning, Chromebooks, a learning management system and professional development training. Idaho Falls also used some money to replace some drinking fountains with water bottle filling stations and cover COVID quarantine leave.

“Right now, financially we are strong and stable and we made those adjustments when we budgeted, so we’re well prepared for this year,” Smith said. One thing district leaders will keep an eye on is any legislative action on enrollment vs. attendance-based funding. The State Board approved a temporary rule to use enrollment funding calculations. But Smith said if the rule expires and the state goes back to attendance calculations she is worried the district would lose money because of all the students who missed time in quarantine.

Boise: $12.9 million

The Boise School District prioritized funding its online school and replacing older heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

With more than 4,000 students enrolled in Boise online school, the district chose to invest $4 million to pay for salaries and expenses for the first four months, chief financial officer Nancy Landon said.

Due to airborne spread of the coronavirus, the district also spent $2.4 million to replace HVAC systems at older schools.

Boise spent about $1.8 million on salaries and benefits to give staff extra duty bonuses. The minimum payment is $600 for certified staff and $300 for classified staff. Otherwise the bonuses equal about 1 percent of an employee’s salary.

Boise also invested in air filters, Chromebooks, hot spots, personal protective equipment pay for social workers and more.

“This money definitely helps,” Landon said. “We had not budgeted for Boise online school and that is totally helping us cover those costs. We also really made a commitment to keep class sizes really small (in our brick and mortar schools).”

Idaho Education News records and data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.



Clark Corbin

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