Since the beginning of the pandemic, school districts and charter schools in Idaho have received three major nonrecurring federal grants to help schools cope with the impact of COVID-19. Two remain active.
Already there are questions from legislators and other interest groups regarding why districts and charters have not been spending down their federal dollars. However, there are sound reasons for the planned use and the timing for expending these funds.
According to the U.S. Department of Education these federal funds are to be used for “reopening schools safely, sustaining their safe operation, and addressing students’ social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs resulting from the pandemic”.
Districts and charters are required to reserve at least 20% of their grant funding to address the learning loss students experienced from school closures and other pandemic related impacts.
Each grant has a deadline for obligating those funds. The deadline for obligating the Covid-19 funds signed by President Trump is September 30, 2022. The deadline for using Covid-19 funds signed by President Biden is September 30, 2024. Every Idaho school district and charter has developed plans for using their share of the grant monies and have posted them on their websites.
We know that Idaho school superintendents with input from their boards and other stakeholder groups will be good stewards of these federal funds. Many of them have expressed the desire to spend this “one-time” money correctly, purposefully, thoughtfully, NOT just quickly. As one superintendent from a small, rural district in northern Idaho stated, “I will do my best to spend the funds allotted to our district, but I will not be rushed to spend them. They will be spent on things that will make a difference to our students and staff and that may just take longer than initially expected.”
Districts and charters large and small, rural and urban, are considering the best uses for these funds that they hope will have a positive impact for their students and staff. But there are potential pitfalls associated with these funds. Here are a few examples:
Facility improvements and technology upgrades. Several districts across Idaho are planning to use their federal funds to improve their air filtration and/or HVAC units and for facility upgrades that will enhance student and staff safety. These are expensive projects and typically have to go through a bidding process that takes time followed by material acquisition and construction schedules. The same can be said for technology hardware, software, and connectivity purchases that are planned in many districts.
Curriculum, supplemental aids and supplies. Most districts and charters are planning to continue to invest in equipment and sanitation supplies to protect from the virus within their buildings. Many districts plan to upgrade curricula to assist in addressing “learning loss”.
Learning loss. Every district and charter is required to plan for and provide activities and instruction for students who have suffered learning loss as a result of breaks in instruction during the pandemic. Disadvantaged groups of students such as those from low income families, English learners, students with disabilities and special needs, etc. are specifically targeted; but so are those students who have fallen behind in credits or are at risk of dropping out.
Hiring teachers and support staff. The federal grants can be used to maintain staffing and to hire new staff. Many districts have had difficulty hiring teachers and support staff during the pandemic. One superintendent in southeast Idaho reported that his district had five teachers quit after the school year began. Another superintendent in the Treasure Valley had to increase class sizes because his district could not find enough qualified teachers.
Secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, food service staff, classroom aides and tutors are also in short supply throughout Idaho. Many of these employees are choosing not to work for the low wages typical for those positions because the wages in other industries are much higher. Pre-pandemic, districts were already spending $1.60 for every $1.00 the state allocated for these classified positions. If districts are forced to raise the wages for these positions using their COVID funds, they will be creating an ongoing expense that will continue beyond the expiration of the federal grant funds. Will the legislature step up its financial support to maintain these vital positions when the federal funds run out?
Other significant questions remain. The state has returned to an attendance-based funding formula this year. With attendance well below normal because of the pandemic, districts stand to lose on-going funding in their state allocations. Some districts are choosing to hold back some of their federal relief dollars to account for this possibility. For larger districts, this can be millions of dollars.
District and charter school budgets and contracted expenses are set for the school year each June, but they will not know what their final state allocation will be for the current year until next July. This uncertainty makes superintendents and business managers very nervous and cautious, for good reason. While districts have access to these one-time federal monies, they worry about paying for their normal on-going operating expenses.
This is unfortunate given that the state’s public education stabilization fund (PESF), an emergency fund normally used to pay for unplanned variances in district budgets, currently has an $80 million balance, but has been designated off limits for this year by the legislature. Additionally, the state’s revenue surplus is estimated to grow to $1.5 billion by the end of next June. These are funds available to fill the gap.
Unless the Idaho Legislature and the Governor agree to use some of the state’s reserve funds to invest in education, districts and charters will be forced to balance their budgets with their federal grants. This was necessary last year when the state’s allocation for operational funds was cut by more than 17%. The thinking then was that districts had federal funds to balance their books. That appears to remain the thinking this year.
Will the Legislature move to funding schools based on their enrollment instead the current attendance model that can reduce a district’s allocation anywhere from 3-10%? Will legislators support districts and charters who have to pay more, due to worker shortages, in salary and benefits in order to attract and retain vital faculty and support staff? Will they recognize the folly of using on-time funds to cover on-going expenses and act appropriately to fund districts? Do they have the will to increase per pupil spending from last in the nation?
Legislators, please contact the superintendents and/or board chairs of the districts and charter schools you represent to hear of their plans for expending Covid-19 federal funds. They will be glad to share their plans, and you will arrive for the January session with a clear picture of the challenges facing Idaho districts going forward.