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.

Schools in the nine-county Dayton region collectively received $818 million in federal COVID relief funds since the start of the pandemic, and much of it remains unspent, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

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.

The Dayton Daily News used Ohio public records law to obtain financial information from dozens of area school districts then interviewed district leaders and education experts to determine how this money could best be spent and how it is being spent already.

We found:

— The rate at which districts are spending this money varies widely. Some local districts haven’t spent any of the latest round of funds, which accounts for more than half the total since the pandemic began, while others expect to spend it all this calendar year. On average, Ohio districts have spent only 15%.

— 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.

— Uses of the funds are as varied as districts themselves, including buses, textbooks, building renovations, playground equipment, prizes for kids to come to school, computer equipment and summer programs.

— 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.

Some districts also received money for specific uses like helping homeless students or providing broadband, but the ESSER money accounts for the largest share of pandemic-related federal aid to schools.

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

The Dayton Daily News obtained financial spending data from 30 local school districts to see how money was being used.

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.

Early on, the focus was on setting up technology and systems to provide virtual learning after the abrupt closure of schools. As schools transitioned to a blended model, stress on teachers increased as they tried to teach both in-person and virtually. Once schools were completely reopened, absenteeism for students and staff caused by quarantining increased.

“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.

Many schools used the first round of ESSER funding to adapt to online learning. This included purchasing computers and wi-fi hotspots for students and equipment and services for staff. As students prepared to return to buildings, districts bought protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and they modified buildings to improve air flow and allow for social distancing.

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

The Dayton Daily News obtained and analyzed data for 30 area school districts. While technology and salaries were common spending across districts, the newspaper did find some varying approaches in using COVID relief funds.

For example:

— While many local districts are hiring counselors, some districts are contracting with outside agencies for mental health services. Carlisle Local Schools, for example, spent $280,000 with the Warren County Educational Service Center for school psychology services.

— One of its largest expenditures from earlier rounds for Miami East Local Schools is for preschool playground equipment.

— Several districts bought new buses. Troy City Schools used $200,000 for buses. Oakwood City Schools spent $131,830 on new vans, which it uses instead of buses.

— 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.

— Huber Heights City Schools plans to use the majority of its latest funds on a new career technology center at Wayne High School.

— Springfield City Schools is using funds to renovate The Dome, its center of innovation, to expand career school offerings.

— Vandalia-Butler plans to spend $894,193 to support school security officers.

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

— Greenon Local Schools spent $23,443 for a new John Deere Gator tractor.

— Huber Heights City Schools spent $36,287 sending school board members and administrators on trips to schools across the country to study project-based learning.

How to spend the money

Chad Aldis, Ohio policy vice president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said he thinks districts should be spending more than the mandatory 20% on helping students catch up, because they need extra resources.

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

Aldis said he thinks diverting much of the money into big construction projects or non-learning uses is going away from the spirit of ESSER rules. But he noted ideas like using the money to install an updated HVAC system, which could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses, falls under the spirit for keeping kids in the classroom.

Aldis also criticized schools that are using their one-time dollars to make increases to line items in their budgets, such as teacher pay.

“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

Tanisha Pruitt, a state policy fellow with Policy Matters Ohio, an Ohio liberal think tank, noted that many districts had students who stopped coming to school entirely during the pandemic, or the district couldn’t find them. Many are using these funds to help them catch up.

Pruitt noted students of color, who studies have shown suffered disproportionate impacts from the pandemic, need the help.

“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.

That analysis shows that districts in Ohio spent an average of 15% of ESSER III funds by Aug. 8. Some districts like Huber Heights, Carlisle and Jefferson Twp. have spent none of it. Dayton Public Schools has spent only $1.4 million of the $90.7 million it received in ESSER III funds.

Dayton and most other districts say they have plans for the money and it will all be spent on time.

Katie Silberstein, strategic projects lead at Edunomics, said districts run a risk if they drag their feet.

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.

But mostly, the money should be spent helping students now, not spent to shore up district budgets, Silberstein said.

“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.

The district is seeking voter approval for a levy in November. It says that even with COVID relief funds totaling $18.3 million, the district is operating at a projected $3.2 million deficit for this fiscal year. District Treasurer Cary Furniss said that without the federal money, the deficit would have been $8.5 million.

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.

“The remaining funds were used in the early days of the pandemic to provide technology to students and staff, provide internet access and to implement safety protocols,” Furniss said.

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 is projected to be in deficit spending next fiscal year. It would have already been there without the ESSER money, according to Espy. Records show that much of what the district has spent so far has been on employee salaries and benefits.

Miamisburg has a replacement levy on the ballot in November.

“Coupled with already restricted state and federal funds, the district is consistently having to make difficult decisions to determine the capacity it has to meet students’ needs,” Espy said.

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Hiring spree not sustainable

One of the most common uses of the federal funds is hiring and paying for staff. This sets school districts apart from cities and counties that avoided hiring with COVID relief funds to avoid the ongoing payroll costs.

But school district leaders say they have no choice.

Dayton Public Schools hired about 100 teachers for first through third grade. Trotwood-Madison is adding 49 positions, largely substitute teachers and social workers. Fairborn hired 39 additional staff members for last school year and this year, mostly teachers.

“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