How local school districts are spending $818M in COVID relief funds

Editor’s note: This story is part of a Dayton Daily News investigative project titled Billions in COVID aid: Where it’s going. Go here for more on this project, including searchable databases showing how your community spent CARES Act funds and now much it is getting in American Rescue Plan funds.

The money presents an opportunity to address academic and mental health setbacks suffered by students during the pandemic — but only if spent wisely.

The federal government provided three rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to school districts across the nation. The first round, ESSER I, has to be spent by Sept. 30, 2022. The deadline for ESSER II is Sept. 30, 2023. The third round, and by far the largest, has to be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.

We found:

— Dayton Public Schools received the largest sum of COVID relief funds in the region, at $143.3 million. This includes $90.7 million in the most recent round, of which 1.6% has been spent.

— Of the 75 local, traditional school districts, 17 received more than $10 million in COVID relief, 31 received more than $5 million and 71 received more than a million. College Corner Local Schools in Preble County received the least: $466,664.

— Many districts are using the one-time funds to hire personnel, such as tutors and counselors. It’s unclear how these positions will be funded once the money runs out.

— Many districts say student setbacks caused by the pandemic will likely last longer than they have to spend the money.

Of the $697 million local traditional school districts received in COVID relief since the beginning of the pandemic, 59% of it came in ESSER III alone.

Shifting challenges

How the funds were spent varies greatly by district. But there were trends that emerged from one round of funding to the next.

“Each phase had its own challenges,” said Northmont City Schools spokeswoman Jenny Wood.

“Knowing students had experienced learning loss and trauma during the pandemic, we have offered more tutorial services and mentors to help students build capacity prior to the money sunsetting,” Wood said.

After that, many districts switched to using ESSER funds to cover employee salaries and benefits.

“The biggest challenge for school districts was dealing with staffing shortages during the peak of COVID,” said Mad River Local Schools superintendent Chad Wyen. “Teachers were covering classes for their peers due to a shortage of substitute teachers, which led to fatigue and a feeling of being overwhelmed.”

Examples of local spending

For example:

— One of the largest expenditures for Franklin City Schools is $1.5 million to maintain two modular buildings for two years to improve social distancing and airflow.

— Trotwood-Madison City Schools spent ESSER funds on Playstations and other prizes to encourage kids to attend school through the pandemic.

How to spend the money

“The 20% should be seen as a floor and not a goal,” he said.

“When those dollars run out, how do you keep paying those expenses when your revenue sources dried up? There’s no indication that states around the country are going to boost education spending,” Aldis said.

Different approaches

“We’re trying to push the school districts where you have this money, you only had the money until a certain amount of time, so please use it and use it wisely,” she said.

Statewide, ODE calculated the chronic absenteeism rate jumped to 24% in 2020-21, the most recent school year for which there is data. That’s up from 11% in 2019-20. In 2018-2019, the school year prior to the beginning of the pandemic, Ohio’s chronic absentee rate was 17%, according to ODE.

Greg Lawson, research fellow at the Buckeye Institute, a conservative Ohio think tank, agreed it’s important to catch kids up. But he said the Buckeye Institute would prefer to see large tutoring efforts from the state paid for with federal dollars.

Lawson argued the families are the ones with the most knowledge about their kid and federal funds should be available to families to use at private mental health practices and private, high-intensity tutoring.

“If you can empower the families, that is going to be a better thing on a one-on-one individualized basis,” Lawson said.

85% of latest funds unspent

How quickly this money is being spent varies by district, but generally it is slow, according to an analysis by Edunomics Lab, a Georgetown University research center focused on education finance.

For one, some students the money is meant to help will graduate or leave school before 2024. Also, teacher shortages and rising construction costs will make it harder to fill jobs and finish projects as time goes by.

“The money was intended to help students get back on track after the pandemic,” she said.

Silberstein said parents and taxpayers should demand transparency in how this money is spent.

“Our big questions are what investments are you making with those funds? And how is it helping kids? And how are you measuring that if at all?” she said.

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Some districts seeking levies

Kettering City Schools expects to have the entire $11.2 million it received in ESSER III funds spent by the end of this calendar year.

Furniss said the district used $8.9 million of those federal funds last year to pay for day-to-day expenses that normally would come out of the general fund, such as maintaining teaching positions despite lower in-person enrollment.

Kettering isn’t alone.

“The funding, in some ways, has masked trends that have occurred in the general fund,” said Miamisburg City Schools Treasurer John Espy.

Miamisburg has a replacement levy on the ballot in November.

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Hiring spree not sustainable

“We’ve tried to focus on getting additional teaching staff in place to make sure that our students have a smaller class size and more opportunities for small group instruction,” DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said.

It’s unclear what will happen to those jobs when the money runs out.

“The programs and initiatives that we have brought in were done with sustainability and building capacity in mind. However, we have told everyone hired with this funding of the possibility that it may end when the funding ends,” Trotwood-Madison Superintendent Reva Crosby said. “To sustain the initiatives that bring the most impact to the district, we will seek other state and federal grants.”

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By the Numbers

$818 million: Amount of COVID relief funds provided to area schools, including career and charter schools

$697.1 million: Amount of COVID relief funds to local traditional public schools.

$414.6 million: Amount provided to local traditional public schools in ESSER III funds

15%: Percent of ESSER III funds spent on average by schools statewide

$143.3 million: Amount of COVID relief funds to Dayton Public Schools, the largest local recipient

$466,664: Amount of COVID relief funds to College Corner Local Schools, the smallest local recipient