Districts receive wide range of federal funds
By Heather Graves
BROWN COUNTY – Understanding the puzzle of school finance is a challenge in a normal year.
Add the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s even more complexity.
The pandemic forced school districts to adapt to new ways of learning, and with it came millions of dollars in unexpected and unbudgeted expenditures.
Over the last year, Congress has passed three stimulus bills providing school districts throughout the country with financial assistance to address the impact the pandemic has had, and continues to have on schools.
Districts are allowed to use the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief or ESSER funds on a broad range of things from cleaning supplies and face masks to laptops, internet hotspots, professional development, building improvements and even staff salaries.
The most recent round of funds require a percentage to be used to address learning loss through programs like summer school.
“It is important to note that the federal dollars for schools are not sent to school districts,” said Pete Ross, chief of operations for the Green Bay school district. “Rather it is an allocation that is set aside for each school district. School districts must make eligible expenditures, which are then submitted to the (Wisconsin) Department of Public Instruction for reimbursement.”
Funds are focused on assisting districts, but not everyone is getting the same amounts.
Ninety percent of the ESSER fund distribution is mandated by the federal government based on the number of low-income pupils residing in each district.
“Statewide total allocation per pupil varies from $107 to $14,576,” said Mike Juech, assistant superintendent of operations for the Howard-Suamico School District.
States have discretion over the use of the remaining 10 percent.
“State elected officials could not change the distribution method,” said Keith Lucius, assistant superintendent for the Ashwaubenon School District. “I understand the federal government’s reasoning that districts with higher students in poverty need more resources, but it definitely created a large difference in the amount per student between districts.”
Lucius said some districts received 10 times more per student than others.
“It seems unfair,” he said. “I would have preferred a distribution formula that provided a base amount per student and then an adjustment for students in poverty, but we were not given any chance to give input to the decision makers regarding the allocation method.”
Green Bay, the largest district in the area, is being allocated a major chunk of ESSER fund dollars at approximately $72.5 million – or $3,820 per pupil.
Ross said the district has submitted two claims to DPI thus far totaling $1,937,717.
“(These) were urgent type items to support students and staff during the pandemic crisis, which included sanitizer, personal protective equipment (PPE), professional development, technology (laptops and hotspot devices), etc.,” he said. “Included in the claim were also expenditures by private schools, as the CARES Act allocated funds for private schools, and the local school district is required to submit their claims.”
Ross said planning is underway for the remaining funds.
“Since these are one-time funds, the district will be judicious in how the money is spent,” he said.
Green Bay Superintendent Steve Murley said a report will be presented to the school board, and be available to the public, on a quarterly basis.
“The intention behind this is to make sure board members, and the general public, can follow along with us as we progress through the expenditure of funds in these three areas,” he said.
Murley said the next step is internal focus groups.
“We can start to talk with our administrative team and our teachers about the areas in which the funds can be expended and start to gather ideas from them about things they think will have the greatest return for our students,” he said. “When we gather that information we’ll compile that, we’ll be sharing that with the board so that collectively we can make determinations about where these dollars should be allocated.”
The Howard/Suamico School District is slated to receive $4.1 million, or $698 per pupil.
So far, Juech said the district has claimed and been reimbursed for $296,269, which included COVID signage, PPE, virtual curriculum platform and supply expenses, Green Bay Community Campus rental costs, technology purchases and cleaning supplies, as well as a portion of private school purchases.
Math and literacy intervention materials were also purchased, but the district has yet to have been reimbursed for those.
Looking forward, Juech said he anticipates future purchases to include summer literacy programming, additional summer school resources, summer school transportation, student mobile hotspots, continued Green Bay Community Campus rental, PPE, hand sanitizer and HVAC improvements, among others.
The Ashwaubenon School District is allocated $2.7 million from the three stimulus bills – or $843 per pupil.
Lucius said $198,656 was spent during the summer and fall of 2020 for PPE, sanitation supplies, plexiglass barriers, Chromebooks and hotspots for students, virtual curriculum materials and summer nurse and staff time as a plan was developed for the 2020-21 school year.
An additional $782,372 was utilized throughout the school year for health aides, additional FTE and stipends for staff working with virtual students, contracted substitute teachers and Chromebooks.
Lucius said preliminary plans are in the works to allocate additional funds toward after-school learning options, summer learning options, additional staff interventionists to work with students next school year, staff training and coaching resources and air quality improvements in buildings.
“These things are still in the planning stages,” Lucius said.
Other area districts and amounts include:
• West De Pere school district – $2.6 million, or $738 per pupil.
• De Pere school district – $1.3 million, or $312 per pupil.
• Seymour school district – $3.7 million, or $1,845 per pupil.
• Pulaski school district – $3 million, or $821 per pupil.
Districts have until Sept. 30, 2022, to utilize the first round of funds, Sept. 30, 202,3 for the second and Sept. 30, 2024, for the most recent.