School & District Management Opinion

Critics Complain My District Doesn’t Really Need Relief Aid. If They Only Knew…

District leaders need clear messaging about how and when they spend relief aid
By Theresa Rouse — July 15, 2021 2 min read
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Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, is widely quoted to have said, “Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes.”

It certainly is a “useful root” amid a catastrophe such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But school leaders often hear critics complaining that we really don’t need, and probably can’t use, the new funds designated to fight this crisis. It’s almost as though critics expect crises to be resolved cost-free.

Let’s take a look at the various funds Congress and the White House across two administrations have agreed to provide to schools as the pandemic ripped through America. First, there was the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) in spring 2020. The district I lead received $3.5 million under CARES. Then, last December, ESSER (the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) was approved. With ESSER, my district was allocated $13.1 million. In March, ARP (the American Rescue Plan) appeared, promising an additional allocation of $27 million for Joliet Public Schools District 86.

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Over the coming weeks, we will be rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading from home. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

What on earth are we doing with all that money, local critics ask? Well, here’s the rub: The only money Joliet 86 received as of May 2021 is the $3.5 million from CARES. By the end of the school year, we had yet to see a penny from ESSER or ARP.

Before I explain where the ESSER and ARP funds are, let me explain why schools really do need these funds.

First, districts have ongoing expenses. The fact that buildings were closed didn’t mean teachers and administrators weren’t working or needing to be paid.
Beyond that, we had enormous additional expenditures related to the pandemic, including the purchase of personal protective equipment, additional Chromebooks for students without computers, and hot spots for students without internet access at home. In my district, some 60 percent of our CARES funding went to closing the digital divide. The remainder went to PPE, facility repairs and upgrades, activities to maintain services, mental-health services, and specific supports for students, including meal distribution.

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What about the ESSER and ARP funds? Illinois districts have to apply to the state for disbursement of these funds, which will happen only when the state approves our grant application. These applications did not become available to districts until March of this year. We only just got approval for ESSER funds at the end of June, the bulk of which we will use to tackle upgrades in our HVAC systems, additional technology needs, and instructional support such as tutoring for students—all of which are critical for schools to reopen.

ARP funds? The state did not release the grant application for this money until this month. We still have a host of unmet needs, including remaining HVAC issues and adding CBRS (Citizens Band Radio Service) towers to eliminate the need for hot spots, all while reserving a required 20 percent of the funds to address students’ unfinished learning needs.

Messaging around when these funds become available and how you’re spending them is critically important. Let local residents know if the “useful root” has not yet been planted in your district. And remind them that what is true in the best of times is even more true amid the chaos of a national crisis: Crises cost money.


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