CARES money with few strings attached coming for next school year
Schools will be able to spend millions in federal dollars headed their way with few restraints.
The $2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act included roughly $30 billion for education, split among three pots: K-12, higher education and a governors’ discretionary fund.
Oregon will receive about $280.7 million from the CARES Act, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
The K-12 money, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, will spread $121.1 million among Oregon districts and ODE. Districts will have until Sept. 30, 2021, to spend the money, and they can use it to continue a broad range of current services.
“They’re pretty flexible dollars,” said Rick Crager, ODE assistant superintendent of finance and administration. His office will be distributing the money to districts. “I don’t know what you couldn’t use the money for.”
ODE is in the process of preparing the relatively short federal application.
“I’ve never seen a federal grant so … simplified,” Crager said. “The intent is to really make things as easy as possible for our districts.”
ODE is working through the application process. The soonest districts would receive money would be early June and the latest would be mid-July, Crager said.
ODE can set aside 10% for administration and targeted uses.
Oregon school districts will receive amounts equal to about 75% of their 2019-20 funding for Title 1, the federal program for helping schools that serve low-income students.
Any school district with at least 10 students and at least a 2% poverty rate, which includes all but 16 Oregon school districts, is eligible for ESSER funds. ODE plans to give some of its discretionary money to ineligible districts as well as education service districts, state-sponsored charter schools and the Oregon School for the Deaf.
ODE will discuss other uses for its share with education stakeholders, according to Crager. Reimbursing schools for technology needs and nutrition work are leading considerations.
Districts are still figuring out the coronavirus budgetary impacts for this fiscal year, but some districts are saving money right now with closed facilities and lower staff needs. The real budget challenges will come next fiscal year. Oregon won’t get its first official glimpse of the closures’ effect on the state budget until May 20, but estimates range as high as a $3 billion shortfall.
Gov. Kate Brown told state agencies to plan for 8.5% cuts from their biennial budgets, which would take $653 million from the State School Fund. Brown can only make across-the-board cuts, but a legislative special session expected after the May 20 report could make more targeted reallocations.
Most schools will be using the federal funds for next year, said Angie Peterman, Oregon Association of School Business Officials executive director.
“Public education and the delivery of services will likely look very different even as we return to our schools,” she said. “What the changes will be and how we will be required to address them will place further challenges on our limited resources and require that we continue to be flexible and innovative.”
The Tigard-Tualatin School District expects its share of the federal CARES money to replace less than 10 percent of its expected cuts from losses to the State School Fund, the Student Success Act and other state revenue sources such as marijuana taxes and lottery funds, said School Board Chair Maureen Wolf.
Wolf, OSBA Board president-elect, said she is deeply grateful for the money but it’s hard and a little overwhelming to see all the district’s planning for increased funds next year washed away.
“You spend a whole year planning for this amazing new investment and then see it blow up in your face,” she said.
Under the CARES Act, Oregon will receive $127.1 million for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and $32.5 million for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. The governor’s office will decide how the governor’s fund money is spent, likely with an eye toward immediate emergency needs. It can be used to support educational entities of all types, including private schools and child care centers.
Michelle Morrison, Hillsboro School District chief financial officer, would like to see the governor’s fund used for schools’ costs for personal protective equipment and facility cleaning now and to save the ESSER money for future needs.
“There will be no shortage of eligible expenses next year,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA