Budget & Finance From Our Research Center

Despite Accusations of Hoarding, Districts Say They’re Steadily Spending ESSER Funds

By Mark Lieberman — August 02, 2022 | Corrected: August 04, 2022 3 min read
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Corrected: An interactive feature in an earlier version of this article failed to credit the Associated Press as the source of district-by-district COVID relief aid.

Despite concerns that some school district leaders are moving too slowly to spend federal COVID relief funds, most are already done or almost done spending their share of the $200 billion package enacted in 2020 and 2021, new EdWeek Research Center survey data show.

Slightly more than half of the 535 district leaders and principals who answered a nationally representative survey between June 29 and July 18 said they’ve spent either about three-quarters of their funds, or all of them. Another 36 percent said they’re about halfway through their federal relief funds, colloquially known as ESSER funds.

Slightly less than 10 percent of respondents said they’ve spent a quarter or less of their ESSER funds.

Districts got three rounds of pandemic relief funds from the federal government: ESSER I in May 2020, ESSER II in December 2020, and ESSER III (the largest set) in March 2021. They have until early next year to spend ESSER I; until early 2024 to spend ESSER II; and until early 2025 to spend ESSER III. ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief.

Some school finance experts and advocates have suggested schools need to step up the pace to meet students’ needs as quickly as possible.

Some districts are already finished spending their allocation because it was fairly small. The South Wilmington schools, a K-8 district in Illinois, spent its $20,000, or $250 per student, on technology tools and a classroom aide.

“I would have loved to be able to remodel classrooms or install new heating and ventilation systems but the money we got would not have paid for even the architect fees to draw up the plans,” said Cindy Christensen, the 100-student district’s superintendent.

How districts use the funds to make long-term improvements

Others have found a wide range of uses for the funds, from construction and ventilation improvements to social-emotional learning and after-school programs.

The Lockwood district in suburban Billings, Mont., has spent about 80 percent of its $5 million ESSER allocation, said Tobin Novasio, the district’s superintendent. Some of the remaining 20 percent will go towards expenses that have already been laid out, but “we haven’t written those checks yet.”

Responding to the 1,550-student district receiving federal relief funds, Montana lawmakers took away roughly $700,000 in state funds the district would have otherwise received under a state formula that assists districts with growing enrollment, Novasio said.

The district used some of its remaining $4.3 million in ESSER funds, or a little more than $3,000 per student, for mental health support, increasing the curriculum director’s salary, and expanding cafeterias to allow for more space between students.

ESSER funds have also facilitated long-term investments. The Lockwood district spent $575,00 to replace carpeted floors with vinyl tile, which takes less time for custodians to clean.

ESSER money also funded the hiring of a full-time substitute teacher in each of Lockwood’s four school buildings. Several of those substitutes went on to become full-time teachers in the district.

Spending fast isn’t always easy—or prudent

Many districts have tried to spend funds quickly and meet the needs of students coming out of a period of unprecedented disruption. But plenty of roadblocks have stood in their way: confusing administrative rules, varying state guidelines, slow-acting state legislatures, and competing expectations from families and staff members.

Spending too quickly can bring unfortunate consequences. Novasio’s team in the Lockwood district invested $34,000 in Wi-Fi hotspots to account for the fact that many families lack at-home internet access, and some can’t even get cellular service. But the federal government later offered school districts separate funds for expenses like those.

“In hindsight if I had known how things would have played out, we probably would have done it differently to leverage the resources we had,” Novasio said.

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