COVID-19 emergency funds lay foundation for better tomorrow
Oregon school boards are cracking open the budget books for next year, and at least this year, it’s not a slasher novel. Federal emergency pandemic money has not only given schools the means to respond to the immediate crisis but also to lay down some lasting improvements.
At the same time, some boards are seeing what they can accomplish with more funding, and they are looking for ways to sustain the progress.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund I, II and III have promised $1.6 billion based on the Title I-A formula to Oregon school districts and education service districts for COVID-19-related costs. School districts apply for reimbursement after they spend the money. As of the end of April, Oregon schools had claimed about $364 million, but the Oregon Department of Education expects that number to jump as districts finish their budgets and submit expenses for this fiscal year.
The Hillsboro School District, for instance, is among four districts that haven’t claimed any of the money yet. Chief Financial Officer Michelle Morrison said the district plans to reconcile its expenses and request reimbursements by the end of the fiscal year, though.
Like most districts, one of Hillsboro’s biggest needs and its largest expense is staffing, but it’s difficult to apply the emergency funding there. Districts are hesitant to spend one-time money on a recurring expense, and Morrison reported it’s difficult to even fill short-term staffing needs, such as extra substitutes and contact tracers, because of the overall labor shortage.
Some districts are using the money to deal with staffing in other ways. The Malheur ESD is partnering with area school districts to pick up about two-thirds of the Northwest Nazarene University tuition cost for school district employees who want to become behavior specialists or counselors for their districts.
For Ashland, though, the emergency funding is a life preserver holding up key student support staff.
“We’re going to use it up,” said Ashland School Board Chair Eva Skuratowicz. “We’ve been hurting for counseling. We’ve been hurting for specialists. … For us, it’s been a really big benefit to be able to provide the services we haven’t been able to for a while.”
Skuratowicz knows the district is running a risk that replacement funds won’t be there when the federal money runs out, but she is also hoping that the need for the extra services will be less as they address students’ trauma and unfinished learning.
Two-thirds of Oregon districts have used up ESSER I, and at least 14 have used up ESSER II. Slightly less than half of districts have tapped ESSER III money.
Mike Wiltfong, ODE school finance and school facilities director, said ESSER I was largely just responding to the immediate crisis, with things such as masks, distance-learning technology and cleaning supplies. He said ESSER II has been more about dealing with the pandemic’s long-term issues, such as unfinished learning. ESSER III, which was passed a year ago, is about addressing the needs school leaders are seeing as students return to schools.
Cynthia Stinson, ODE senior manager for federal investments and federal implementation, said it is the most unusual grant program she has seen, with broad flexibility and little up-front guidance.
“We were supposed to distribute the money before we even had a plan,” she said.
Districts had to provide spending plans, but unlike the typical process, ODE did not approve individual expenditures in the plans and districts have been able to spend on things not in their plans, Stinson said.
Smaller districts, especially, have relied on the funds, sometimes to make big purchases or programmatic improvements that would normally be out of reach.
Fossil Business Manager Corrina Jaeger said ESSER I was dedicated to protective gear and supplies. ESSER II and III were used to replace the school boiler from 1925. Jaeger said the district never could have managed a new heating and cooling system in its regular budget.
Dufur School Board Chair Anne Kelly said the district was also able to use the money on things that will have a lasting benefit, such as facility maintenance.
“A lot of things this funded are not sexy or exciting, but they are necessary and more needed than something more visible,” Kelly said.
Dufur also put money toward giving teachers time and access to materials so they could create more engaging activities for children, such as outdoors hands-on learning. Kelly said the extra money gave the district room to care for its teachers, creating goodwill.
Kelly has been on the board since 2011, so she has seen bad times in school budgeting. ESSER has opened the board’s eyes to possibilities for student enrichment, she said.
“It’s been lovely to feel like schools are being funded the way they needed to be funded,” she said.
Elgin School Board Chair Chuck Anderson said it was a relief to have that money available for the pandemic’s early requirements. He said it’s a little scary that support might run out while the need is still high.
Education advocates are looking nervously toward next year’s legislative session. School districts feeling flush from having their spending needs met could find themselves staring at a gaping hole when the federal money runs out. They still must cover long-term programs and staffing to catch students up and address trauma while enrollment is dropping in some districts, affecting their share of the State School Fund.
Meanwhile, soaring inflation is driving up schools’ cost. The Legislature’s formula-driven calculation for current service level needs already doesn’t accurately capture the actual cost increases recorded by districts, according to school leaders.
Last year, the Legislature passed a $9.3 billion State School Fund, which legislative analysts said was more than current service level needs but the Oregon Association of School Business Officials said was at least $300 million too low.
“The (federal) resources have been incredibly helpful to offset the impacts of declining enrollment and the legislative decision to not fully fund the State School Fund,” said Bethel School Board Chair Debi Farr.
She said Bethel’s current budget would spend the last of ESSER II, much of it on support positions for students and training for educators to lay the groundwork for long-term recovery.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA