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Education Funding

Most District Leaders Say They’re Almost Done Spending ESSER Funds

By Mark Lieberman — April 17, 2023 4 min read
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Most school districts are well on their way to spending all the federal relief money they received during the pandemic, new data from the EdWeek Research Center show.

The deadline to commit the third and biggest round of funds, known colloquially as ESSER III, is still 17 months away. But more than half of the 277 district leaders and 185 principals who answered a survey from the EdWeek Research Center between March 29 and April 11 said they’ve already spent about three-quarters of the funds they received from all three rounds.

Another 27 percent of respondents said their district is all out of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) money.

Put together, nearly 80 percent of district and school leaders reported having spent three-quarters or more of their relief funds. Twelve percent said they’ve spent about half their allocation.

These numbers represent a significant jump from the last time the EdWeek Research Center surveyed the field on this topic. Last August, only 11 percent of more than 500 district leaders and principals who responded said they were finished spending ESSER funds, and another 40 percent reported having spent at least three-quarters.

“We are in the category of school districts that have spent more than three-quarters of ESSER funds and wish we had more,” said Shashank Aurora, chief financial officer for the 31,000-student Des Moines school district in Iowa.

The district has committed its $144 million allocation—more than $4,000 per student—to everything from recruitment incentives to investments in school security. Aurora made a three-year plan when his district received the funds to ensure the spending was spread out as evenly as possible.

But he wishes he had more money available for signing bonuses and expanded benefits to entice more workers. And his district used ESSER funds to upgrade indoor air quality in some buildings, but didn’t finish that work in every building prior to running out of money.

Rural districts are spending a bit more quickly

All told, districts received more than $190 billion in federal COVID relief dollars between March 2020 and March 2021.

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The survey results show that rural districts, in general, are slightly further along on ESSER spending than their urban and suburban counterparts. Eighty-three percent of respondents from rural districts said they’ve spent at least three-quarters of their federal relief money, including 28 percent who said they’re finished with the funds.

Seventy-four percent of suburban respondents, and the same percentage of urban administrators, said the same.

Meanwhile, a small but notable share of districts has the opposite problem: More than halfway through the grant period, they still have a large chunk of their funds left to spend.

Twelve percent of survey respondents said they’ve spent about half their ESSER haul. One percent said they’ve spent about a quarter. Two percent said they’ve spent more than zero but less than a quarter.

Why some districts are taking their time

Throughout the pandemic, some observers have raised concerns that districts aren’t spending ESSER money quickly enough and that they’ll have to speed up their spending to meet a September 2024 deadline for committing the last of their money. More recent analyses, however, have suggested that most districts are on track to spend their full allocations by the deadline.

Important questions remain about how districts will sustain programs and services funded by COVID aid once the spending deadlines pass and the dreaded “fiscal cliff” arrives. And districts and have been advocating for more than a year for a deadline extension so they have more time to finish out longer-term contracts, like for mental health services. Districts in several states already sought extensions to finish spending the first round of ESSER funds.

More flexibility on the schedule would also give districts more room to weather persistent supply-chain delays that have held back progress on construction and technology purchases, district leaders have argued.

Respondents from urban districts were slightly more likely to say they had spent less than a quarter of their total ESSER funds than their counterparts in suburban and rural districts.

Some small districts that got minimal allocations might be holding onto their money in case of an emergency, with plans to spend it just in time for the deadline, said Tobin Novasio, superintendent of the 1,500-student Lockwood school district in Montana.

Others may be holding out hope that the cost of materials and labor for long-planned facilities projects will taper off from inflation-driven highs before the money has to be spent, Novasio said.

“The core of a superintendent’s role is really to squeeze as much out of our available resources—money, staff, time—as we can,” Novasio said. “I can understand why these strategies might be best for some districts despite the optics that ‘they didn’t need this money.’”

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