School districts make bold plans for millions in federal aid

Plastic dividers, cleaning supplies and extra staff to deal with COVID-19 cost many local schools extra money in 2020-21.
Caption
Plastic dividers, cleaning supplies and extra staff to deal with COVID-19 cost many local schools extra money in 2020-21.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

List of ‘authorized activities’ for the money has limits, but it’s still broad.

With $400 million in federal COVID relief funds available to local schools, dozens of districts are planning to use the money to make health and education-related changes and some are thinking big to take advantage of a rare opportunity.

Fairborn is hiring dozens of teachers for student intervention, Dayton is making a massive investment in early grades, and Huber Heights is totally reimagining its approach to high school.

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Shannon Cox, superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center, said that in giving the money, U.S. Department of Education officials urged schools not just to pay for status quo services, but to invest in change.

“The feds said to think of this money as an investment in transforming educational practices — what have you always wanted to do in the district to improve student achievement, that you just haven’t been able to do?” Cox said. “If we come out of this and everything looks the same, then shame on us. It’s a one-time opportunity, and we have to do it right.”

How much money, and where?

The second and third federal COVID relief bills that passed in December and March included significant funding for local schools, called ESSER funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief).

The funding is based largely on student poverty rates in a district. Dayton Public Schools has access to $131 million between the two federal efforts, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Trotwood-Madison is second locally at $22.9 million. Springboro, in contrast, which is twice Trotwood’s size but has a higher household income, gets $1.4 million.

Kettering, Northridge, Xenia and Fairborn get $14-16 million each; Troy, Centerville and Northmont schools each have about $7 million available between the two federal relief efforts; while Bellbrook, Tipp City, Brookville and Oakwood each get about $1.8 million. All of those amounts are meant to be spent over the next three years.

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Federal guidance said the money was meant to help “safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation’s students,” including efforts to reverse significant “learning loss.”

The list of “authorized activities” for the money has limits, but it’s still broad. Fifteen items range from health and disease training to HVAC repairs to numerous types of academic support.

As Milton-Union schools Treasurer David Stevens said, every school is different, so every ESSER plan will be different.

Planning in Huber

In Huber Heights schools, the district learned it was in line for $16.9 million in ESSER money just as it was in the middle of a broad strategic planning process.

Superintendent Mario Basora said the community’s top desire was to have career tech opportunities on the Wayne High School campus, rather than making students travel to the CTC campus in Clayton. They now plan to build four career-tech labs for students who want to pursue a skilled trade.

“We’ve never had this kind of injection of funds in public schools at one time, and there are a lot of needs you could fill,” Basora said. “We wanted to make sure it was something that was truly transformational and could make a difference 50 years into the future.”

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Basora said they are deciding which programs to offer. (Other schools offer fields such as construction, automotive, pre-nursing among others). But he said it will make a huge impact for more students to graduate from Wayne with a career tech certification that will allow them to get a good-paying job right out of high school.

There have been some questions about the ability to use the federal money for building construction, but Basora said both Ohio Department of Education officials and the district’s own legal counsel have said “at least a good portion” of the costs would qualify.

Another of Huber Heights’ main plans for the money is hiring about 30 tutors on two-year contracts, one for each grade level K-6 at each elementary school. The idea is for more small group and 1-on-1 intervention for students who need it.

“We’re going to try it for two years, and do some research on it to see what kind of impact that has,” Basora said. “The more we can get that personalization for kids in place by having smaller student-(educator) ratios, the better academic achievement we’ll have.”

Doubling down in Dayton

One of Dayton Public Schools’ big plans is to hire 85 extra teachers, so that every first-, second- and third-grade classroom has two certified teachers. With fewer students per teacher, and more small-group intervention, Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli hopes DPS can reduce achievement gaps in the crucial early grades that set the stage for student success.

By mid-July, Lolli said 74 of those 85 positions were filled.

Dayton is also paying its three-year, $17.7 million busing contract with First Student out of the federal funds, in an attempt to solve decades-long problems with busing inefficiency.

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Other eight-figure investments include $10.16 million for educational technology, which includes thousands of laptop computers as well as educational software programs. The district also has budgeted $14.2 million in HVAC work on its buildings, even though nearly all DPS schools are less than 15 years old. Air quality improvements are a qualified expense for COVID relief money.

“Preventive maintenance is necessary and we haven’t done that for a number of years,” Lolli said of DPS’ fairly new schools. “This will help us get caught up and get us on a prevent maintenance cycle, so our buildings will stay ‘new.’”

Many schools, many plans

Ohio school districts had to study how COVID affected them, then create learning recovery plans for their schools. Cox said creation of those plans should have been “the fact-finding mission” that would show schools where investment was needed.

** Milton-Union: Compared to Dayton’s $131 million, Milton-Union schools’ $2.1 million in federal aid doesn’t seem like much, but Superintendent Brad Ritchey said it will allow them to do several things.

The district will offer summer school and credit recovery for students who failed classes. It will fund enrichment programs like Space Camp and Roller Coaster Physics. It will pay for technology like improved cameras on buses, which helps with COVID contact tracing.

Many problems coming out of COVID school disruption are non-academic. Milton-Union is also bringing in a social-emotional learning consultant specifically to work with kindergarten through second graders and their teachers.

“Some of our most challenging kids are our youngest right now,” Ritchey said. “They are exhibiting severe behaviors and need a lot of social-emotional support.”

** Fairborn: Of the district’s $14.1 million in federal funds, $3.5 million will go to hiring dozens of teachers, including math coaches, who will do 1-on-1 and other intervention work “to deal with the learning loss that has occurred with our students over the past 16 months,” Superintendent Gene Lolli said.

Because the federal money is not recurring, he said a big question is whether they’ll need to continue that work beyond one year. Fairborn also plans to use ESSER funds “for the continuation of salaries for current staff.”

** NHA charter schools: Emerson Academy, Pathway School and North Dayton School of Discovery are each receiving between $5.3 and $7.3 million in ESSER funds, according to ODE.

Spokeswoman Leah Nixon said they’re still finalizing their approach, but the nine-bullet item list of “likely” projects included multiple Chromebook and technology listings. The schools are also planning “COVID stipends” for staff, like several other schools are considering, to reward staff who adjusted and improvised through a challenging 2020 and 2021.

** New Lebanon: The Dixie schools are spending about $1.1 million on facilities projects, primarily HVAC air-quality projects, according to Superintendent Greg Williams. Another $750,000 will go to “extended learning” work beyond the regular school day and year.

Williams said the extra money allows the district to meet both learning and health needs “without cutting back in important areas.”