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Budget & Finance

Why a Handful of School Districts Rejected COVID Relief Funds

By Mark Lieberman — February 24, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of a hand rejecting another hand offering a stack of bills
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An overwhelming majority of school district leaders this year are eyeing the finish line for federal COVID relief dollars and pondering a future without them.

Stewart Jesse, superintendent of Glass City Academy, a public charter district in Toledo, Ohio, is not among them.

He and his colleagues chose not to accept the $75,000 in federal relief funds they were offered across three rounds during the pandemic. That places Glass City among a small number of districts across the country that rejected the federal relief funds made available to them since the early days of the pandemic.

“Everybody I talk to about this, they look at me like I am the most crazy superintendent in the world,” Jesse said.

But he’s in charge of an atypical district with a $2.5 million budget that has rejected all federal funds available to it since it opened in 2003. Glass City’s reasons for rejecting federal relief funds, as with other districts that did the same, stem from its unique circumstances.

Glass City’s 400 students are all enrolled in dropout recovery—a series of narrowly targeted academic programs that help students who abandoned their traditional schooling track get on a path to graduation and then postsecondary education or the workforce.

Because of that narrow focus, small student body, and wealth of generous donations from community partners, the district was able to weather the early days of the pandemic without much fiscal strife.

Glass City Academy reopened its doors for full-time, in-person learning in August 2020, so it didn’t see learning loss on the scale of students in other districts that had their physical campuses closed longer. Plus, the district was already adept at teaching remotely because that was the only way some students could attend school.

Local nonprofit partners regularly take up shop in the schools’ community service hub, charging the district nothing and providing all kinds of resources for students—assistance with housing, health, family issues, mental health counseling, career advising, summer tutoring, and more.

That’s all made it possible for Jesse to say no to an offer he thought would be, more than anything, an administrative headache.

“We’re very unique. I don’t think 99 percent of the school districts” could have weathered the pandemic as well without federal aid, Jesse said.

Districts that rejected ESSER funds are a rarity

Indeed, most haven’t tried. Education Week asked state education departments to share lists of districts that didn’t accept federal relief funds allocated to them.

More than 20 states had no districts reject pandemic aid from the federal government. In Texas, one district didn’t accept the first round of federal aid because it closed and consolidated with another district.

But Education Week’s nationwide search did turn up that a tiny fraction of districts—roughly 15 traditional public school districts and 45 charter districts—chose not to receive federal relief funds. Some of the charters didn’t accept funds because they were in the process of closing as part of the regular churn of those types of schools.

Schools collectively received $190 billion from the federal government during the pandemic to spend on COVID mitigation tools, digital devices, and anything that would help students and staff recover from the disruption wrought by the pandemic. The federal government directed aid through the existing Title I formula, which meant most, but not all, districts were offered some funds.

Some districts rejected federal relief funds on principle.

The Paris school district in Wisconsin turned down $320,000, or $1,100 per student. The district’s superintendent told the state education department in emails obtained by the news station WUWM that he was concerned about a link between receiving COVID funds and having to follow public health guidelines.

The state education department, in a statement to WUWM, disputed that a decision not to follow public health guidelines would affect how much the district would receive.

Others had more practical reasons to turn down the money.

In New Hampshire, three districts returned allocations of less than $1,000 each because the funds wouldn’t have been worth the time and paperwork necessary to receive them, said Kimberly Houghton, a spokesperson for the state education department.

The 105-student Bickleton district in Washington stood to get an even larger haul—roughly $80,000, or $761 per student, over the three rounds of funds. But that figure dwarfed the amount of COVID-related expenses the district incurred.

“Who ultimately is gonna pay this ESSER money? The taxpayers,” said Kim Clinton, the district’s chief financial officer. “Why in the world would we tax our 80-year-old neighbor when we didn’t really need the money?”

That’s not to say the money would have gone to waste had the district accepted it. “It would have been lovely to have that amount of money come in to spend,” Clinton said. “But we wouldn’t have been able to spend it directly on COVID [as the law requires]. We would have to be a little imaginative.”

As the only person working on finances in her district, which consists of a one-room school house, Clinton said she didn’t have the capacity to plot out how the district could spend the federal funds in compliance with rules governing how schools could use them.

“I can tell you every single penny that I spent in our district,” Clinton said. “In the school board meeting, I go over every single bill.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Why a Handful of School Districts Rejected COVID Relief Funds

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