School districts’ uses of federal relief funds worry lawmakers

Students listen to teacher Natalie Lyon in her third grade classroom at John Colter Elementary School in Jackson in 2017. Lawmakers, teachers, parents, administrators and others wonder what Wyoming's bleak revenue picture will mean for the future of education. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

By Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

Some lawmakers are worried that school districts are using federal pandemic-relief and recovery funds to add new positions and purchase equipment that might add to ongoing costs for the state.

The anxiety stems from the fact that school districts have discretion in how to spend the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds distributed to districts from the CARES and American Recovery and Reinvestment acts. Wyoming’s allotment of ESSER funds total $470 million so far, according to state and federal data. About 90% is directly available to school districts to spend at their discretion; state-level authorities, including legislatures, are not allowed to deny or add stipulations to district-level ESSER spending, so long as expenditures meet federal guidelines.

“They [U.S. Department of Education] were very explicit that we are not able to limit the uses and we’re not able to even limit the time allowed to be able to utilize the funds,” Wyoming Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shelley Hamel told members of the Select Committee on School Facilities earlier this month.

In some instances, school districts in Wyoming have added nurses, custodians and other staff positions, as well as new programs, equipment and other investments that may need financial support after federal ESSER support runs out.

“It’s a growing concern of mine when we have federal funds and we see these types of expenditures going out for growing areas that we know we don’t have funds for,” committee member Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) said. Brown also serves on the Joint Education Committee. “We get talked to about jobs, and I really get scared hearing about eliminating these positions at the schools. It falls back on our shoulders as legislators and, frankly, it puts us in a sticky situation.”

Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) (Photo: Wyoming Legislature)

ESSER spending in Wyoming

Initial priorities for ESSER dollars included personal protective equipment, moving to online classrooms, improving indoor air quality via upgrades in ventilation, filtration, heating and air conditioning and otherwise creating safe learning spaces for students, teachers and staff during the pandemic. The ESSER program has since expanded to more broadly support the reopening of schools and to “support students who have been most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and are likely to have suffered the most because of longstanding inequities in our communities and schools that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Some Wyoming school districts plan to institute programs to address learning loss due to the pandemic, student mental health, tutoring and to extend summer classes and school lunch programs, according to a preliminary report prepared for the Select Committee on School Facilities. They’re also spending ESSER dollars on new computers, boosting cell and internet service, student counseling and after-school activities.

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“The whole process has worked extremely well, and has been very beneficial for the district,” Campbell County School District Associate Superintendent for Instructional Support Dennis Holmes told members of the school facilities committee.

Committee member Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) said she’s concerned that a lot of the ESSER spending doesn’t seem directly tied to COVID-19 expenses.

“I noticed one school, they put in money, or a request, for school lunches, lunch supplies, school supplies, activities and Chromebooks,” Hutchings said. “Not one thing seems to be COVID-related, except for the cleaning supplies and PPE.”

Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) (Photo: Wyoming Legislature)

Holmes said that although the pandemic connections might not be immediately obvious, ESSER spending is fully vetted by both the state and the federal government.

“It’s really hard to understand the scope of COVID on school districts and the many facets of how it has impacted learning,” Holmes said.

Lawmakers and school officials agree that the injection of nearly half a billion in ESSER dollars into Wyoming schools and education programs comes at a crucial time. The main source for funding education in Wyoming — revenues from coal, oil and natural gas — appear to be in permanent decline, potentially creating a revenue gap of hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years. Meantime, lawmakers have failed to agree on potential new sources of education funding, instead relying on budget cuts.

Coordinating local and state priorities

So far there’s not a full accounting for how school districts are spending ESSER funds — a task that is ongoing at the Wyoming Department of Education. Only 23 of 48 school districts requesting the funds responded to a survey by the state to provide an accounting of requests and spending.

That’s not for lack of full-faith accountability among school districts, Hamel said. The process has been rife with confusion during a time of chaos and uncertainty due to the pandemic and multiple iterations of the ESSER program under two presidential administrations. Select Committee on School Facilities Chairman Sen. Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne) asked WDE officials to establish a coordinating team between the department and state officials overseeing education capital construction and major maintenance programs.

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While there’s concern among lawmakers that school districts may be taking on continuing expenses that eventually fall on the state’s shoulders, some of the spending will also satisfy to-do items on the state’s own school maintenance list, saving the state money. The challenge, for now, is to account for that spending among local districts and the state.

“If they’re spending it on component systems or maintenance systems that would then not have to be repaired with major maintenance dollars, those [state funds] could go further,” State Construction Department Planning and Finance Administrator Laura Anderson told lawmakers.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow recently submitted Wyoming’s draft plan to the U.S. Department of Education for priority ESSER spending under the American Rescue Plan. Wyoming’s most recent ESSER allotment, this time under ARP, accounts for about $303 million of the total $470 million under the federal program so far.

“Wyoming’s plan looks different than most states because our school doors were open during the 2020-21 school year,” Balow said in a press release. “School districts and community partners have a unique opportunity to strengthen teaching and learning for all students, especially those most negatively impacted by COVID-19 and its associated effects.”

The draft plan is available for public comment.

 

 

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