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K-12 schools look to ‘fill the gap’ with incoming $2 billion COVID relief funds

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MONTGOMERY — Alabama’s K-12 schools have about $2.02 billion coming in from the American Rescue Plan Act that schools will be able to spend over the next three years, making it one of the largest single investments Alabama has ever seen for public education.

In three rounds of COVID-19 federal relief funding since last year, K-12 schools are getting more than $3.1 billion. That’s more than four years worth of annual federal Title I money targeted at helping low-income learners.

“We’ve never had an influx of money like this before and we’re excited about the possibilities,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey told Alabama Daily News.

Districts have already submitted their plans for spending the first two rounds of COVID stimulus funding, and as schools plan for the third round — nearly twice as much as the first two combined — they are hoping to lift Alabama up from being among the lowest ranked in the nation for educational achievement.

“It’s not just about making up for lost time, and you’ll hear superintendents talk about this, it’s more like here’s their opportunity to catch Alabama up to where we need to be,” said Ryan Hollingsworth, the executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama.

While some districts may use the funds to hire more personnel or to fund other long-awaited needs in their schools, Mackey is concerned about the short timeline in which they are to be spent.

“The only concern I hear is it is so much money that has to be spent in such a short amount of time that some of the really important systemic things that people would like to do, you may just not be able to do it with this money and it’s unfortunate,” Mackey said.

Districts have until September 2024 to spend the latest round of funds and have to submit their spending plans to the state education department by the end of August.

While the first two rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money could be used to prepare for, prevent and respond to COVID-19, the third round of funding is to be more focused on recovering from any learning loss that occurred over the past year and a half of schooling.

“Here we are with some resources that will help some of our most at-risk students, some of our lowest-performing students, so when we say accelerate, it’s accelerate to a normal learning curve,” Hollingsworth said.

Alabama has continued to rank near the bottom of many state ranking lists for education achievement, including the Nation’s Report Card, which puts Alabama last in terms of fourth and eighth-grade math, reading and science proficiency.

A majority of the funds this third round will go directly to districts, with a mandatory 20 percent of the funds being spent on addressing learning loss through summer learning, enrichment programs, extended-day or extended-year programs and after-school programs.

Hollingsworth said schools plan on spending the huge influx of funds on anything from expanding summer school or after-hour learning programs, to hiring more personnel, to capital projects.

The funds are allocated based on the districts’ poverty levels, with the most funds going to the systems considered the neediest.

Birmingham City Schools is getting the largest amount for a city system at $119.1 million and Mobile County is getting the single largest county school system allocation at $227.1 million. A breakdown of what each district is getting for ESSER III funding can be viewed here.

Only three systems in the state will not receive any of the funds — Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and Trussville – because they do not qualify for Title I federal funding.

Districts’ plans for spending

The guidelines for what districts can spend the ESSER III funds on are more flexible compared to the first two rounds.

Mackey said along with more summer school or after-school programming, he’s hearing that superintendents are looking into update their instructional materials to help with implementing things like the Alabama Literacy Act and other one-time expenses that require specialized material.

Tuscaloosa City Schools Superintendent Mike Daria told ADN his district is looking at the funds as a way to fill in the gaps that education funding in Alabama has been missing.

“We’re applying these federal funds in areas where we’ve not been able to make the traction or progress that we needed to make because of funding,” Daria said. “We’re able to fill that in.”

Tuscaloosa is getting $28.1 million from the ESSER III round of funding. To put that amount into perspective, its annual operating budget is around $125 million.

Daria says they are looking at the funds from two levels, a school-based assessment and then a system-based assessment.

He said the district is looking at using the funds to boost their re-visioned summer learning program that has been going on for five years and currently serves about 2,000 students out of an 11,000 student population.

Daria says summer learning programs are important now more than ever but that his district has been experimenting with a strategy to increase student achievement even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our data analysis from years before COVID showed that not only did we stop the summer learning slide but we actually advanced several of our students in both math and reading,” Daria said.

Other priorities his district would like to focus on funding are obtaining more social workers to help with mental health concerns of students and professional development for all employees to help with the re-entry process for the many students returning to in-person learning for the fall of 2021.

“Some of our students, about 3,000, have not been in our buildings since March of the previous year,” Daria said. “So we’ve got to really think strategically about this kind of re-entering back into the building process, and having the support in place for our students.”

Districts across the state are also holding summer literacy camps for students in kindergarten through third grade who have shown a deficit in reading as part of the requirements of the Alabama Literacy Act, Al.com reported.

Terry Reddick, the superintendent for Gadsden City Schools, told ADN that their annual operating budget is typically around $40 million and they are going to receive around $21.4 million from ESSER III funds. The system has spending plans similar to Tuscaloosa’s, but will also include some capital projects.

“We want to improve the air systems in multiple schools, including multiple schools that don’t have any air conditioners in their gymnasiums, and also repurpose buildings for other instructional uses like for social, emotional learning facilities,” Reddick said.

Reddick said he doesn’t want to spend too much on obtaining new personnel because he worries about finding a replacement for those funds in three years but more social workers and nurses are needed at his schools.

“Our biggest focus is making sure we provide ample instruction to our struggling students, and encouragement for those students, and then certainly professional development for our staff too,” Reddick said.

Daria said in order to avoid those personnel cuts in three years, they will have to also build a parallel plan for after 2024.

“We’ve got these two, three years to work as a school system to prioritize our or reprioritize our budget, and say which of these additional employees do we need to keep, maybe not at the same scale or the same level, but that we need to keep because we’re seeing a return on the investment,” Daria said.

Reddick also wants to make sure that families know that just because these extra federal dollars are coming in, doesn’t mean they are going to not spend their annual budget allocations.

“We’re not trying to build up our general fund, we just now have the opportunity to free up some of those funds for things we’ve always wanted to do,” Reddick said.

Daria also sees these funds as an opportunity to show state legislators what programs could work for the state and where more funding could help uplift more in-need students.

“We’ve got this opportunity to, as educators, to really show that investment in education makes a difference and that’s where the responsibility is,” Daria said. “We’ve got to use this as a platform for advocacy for additional funding for education in our community, state and country.”

Future impact on state education budget?

The massive influx of federal stimulus money isn’t expected to affect next year’s state education budget either, Senate education budget chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told ADN.

Orr said since most of the money is going straight to local education agencies, it won’t have that big of an impact on the state’s budget.

“As far as state impact, we had some of that came through at the state department level from the CAREs Act and we dialed back on spending on the literacy bill because that was going to come from federal money but with the ARP, so much is going straight to the locals and not to the state department,” Orr said.

Orr said he and other legislators will be monitoring how LEAs are choosing to spend the stimulus funds and requirements to send reports to the legislature were also written into the 2022 fiscal year budget passed in May.