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Tri-City schools have $137 million in federal COVID relief. Where’s that money going?

Sept. 5, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 5, 2022 at 9:08 p.m.

By Eric Rosane Tri-City Herald

KENNEWICK, Wash. – The Kennewick School District had been hit with a one-two punch.

After suffering a loss of enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, a double levy failure this year added to the district’s financial pinch.

A $25 million deficit was on Kennewick’s horizon for the 2022-23 school year as state and local funding dried up. But district officials have a plan.

A combination of budget cuts, general fund savings and federal dollars will steer the district in the right direction, avoiding catastrophic cuts to teaching positions, student programs and school safety, they say.

Of the total deficit this school year, $10 million will be covered with federal funds called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER).

“We would be in a very, very challenging budget situation” without it, Kennewick Superintendent Traci Pierce told the Herald.

The special, one-time federal infusion was used by school districts nationwide in the early days of the COVID pandemic to pay for personal protective equipment and buttress online learning for millions of students.

Today, these broad-use funds continue to be used to make investments in school facilities, mental health services and to combat pandemic-caused learning loss.

Congress has allocated billions of dollars in historic proportions to schools across the country.

Tri-City school districts have more than $137 million in ESSER dollars earmarked for them.

Compared with spending statewide, local schools are using a larger portion of their available ESSER dollars for staffing. But what else has that money paid for?

And with deadlines approaching and only a little more than one-third of that total funding spent, where will the rest of those investments be made?

What is ESSER

In the wake of COVID-19, public schools began receiving infusions of reimbursable funding from the federal government.

In March 2020, as the public went into lockdown, Congress set aside roughly $13.2 billion of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) for schools.

The education stabilization funding would become known as ESSER 1. Two other federal laws – the 2020 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and 2021 American Rescue Plan – continued to contribute cash.

Tri-City schools put millions of dollars in new funding to the test in a matter of months, while also responding to the rapidly changing situation with COVID.

The spending had a caveat – they had to help schools respond to the pandemic, use it to offset revenue lost in enrollment or work to reopen schools.

Most of the funds were doled out from states to school districts through a poverty model based largely on Title I, Part A. Schools had already been receiving federal funding through Title I since before the pandemic, though.

Because Richland doesn’t have nearly the number of Title 1 students as Kennewick or Pasco, and due to its smaller student population, it received nearly two-thirds less than the neighboring districts.

Combined, Tri-City schools have spent about 43% of their allocated ESSER funds.

Richland School District

Richland School District received more than $21.1 million and has spent a little more than $16 million.

One of the district’s largest expenditures so far has been investments in remote learning and online classrooms for a total of more than $3.8 million.

Like other districts, Richland propped up its own fully online school – Pacific Crest Online Academy – with about $1.7 million.

The district is likely to keep the alternative learning experience funded, as it expects about $2.5 million in state money to come in annually to fund the program with its 29 staff members. About 456 students were enrolled there last school year.

Richland in recent months has pivoted to focusing on summer school opportunities and mental health resources.

“At first, everything was about PPE and air filters, barriers and masks, cleaning supplies,” said Clinton Sherman, Richland School District’s executive director of financial services. “And then we kind of moved into staffing and testing.”

Pasco School District

Pasco School District got almost $57.3 million in funding and has spent more than half that so far – $29.3 million.

Most has gone to wages and benefits: $18.8 million to certified and classified employees’ salaries, payroll taxes and benefits.

It’s the district’s largest expenditure, and more than half those wages went directly to teaching positions and learning supervision.

Half of that $18.8 million has gone to cover teaching positions.

Pasco’s principal and the superintendent salaries also have benefited from ESSER. At least $2.7 million has been used to cover principal salaries. And more than $157,000 has gone to the superintendent’s office for certified wages.

About $3.8 million went for supplies and materials. And about $2.8 million toward what the district calls “indirect costs.”

Pasco lost about $3.2 million in revenue due to drops in student enrollment and bus ridership in the 2020-21 school year.

Tri-City school districts also lost hundreds of students during the pandemic, many of which still have not returned. ESSER dollars have been used by school districts to replace state funding they’ve lost as a result of reduced enrollment, and to keep teachers hired.

Enrollment-based state funding makes up most of school funding in the Tri-Cities.

Kennewick School District

Kennewick has spent the least amount compared to its peers: Only about one-third of its $58.69 million award – roughly $22.1 million – has been used.

Most of that, nearly $19 million, went to fund staff and teachers salaries.

Last year alone, $300,000 was used for online tutoring services and $425,000 for high school mental health services.

“It’s been very beneficial and as the service continues, we see more and more families taking advantage of that. We anticipate we’ll have even more families participating this next year,” Pierce said of tutoring.

Those mental health and counseling services also will be offered at middle schools this school year.

Continued investments into Kennewick’s online school appear to be up in the air.

It served about 1,000 students at its peak, but those numbers continue to drop as students return in person to classrooms.

“ESSER funds covered approximately 70 staff positions during the 2021-22 school year,” Robyn Chastain, the district’s public relations director, said in an email.

“Sixteen of those positions were associated with the expanded online programs at Mid-Columbia Partnership (K-8) and Endeavor High School (9-12). At this time, we don’t know how many will be covered by ESSER during the 2022-23 school year. It will depend on enrollment and state funding,” she wrote.

And why has Kennewick spent none of the sizable $37.6 million in ESSER 3 funds for which it’s eligible?

Pierce says it’s because the district still has about $7.4 million in ESSER 2 funds it needs to allocate. And those expire sooner – at the end of September.

“It’s really just a timing thing,” she said.

To compare, Richland has spent more than half of its $13.6 million in ESSER 3 funds, and Pasco has spent nearly one-third of its $36.7 million.

State spending

T.J. Kelly, chief financial officer of the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said it’s not surprising Tri-City schools are using so much of ESSER for salaries and staff retention.

“We expected a large component of this to be salaries and benefits because, ultimately, this is people. These intervention services are manifested and represented by people on the ground, interacting with students and providing the interventions they need to bring them out of COVID,” he said.

A budget presentation to the Pasco School Board earlier this year showed the difference between salary funding across all districts and those just in Tri-Cities.

Statewide, school districts so far have spent 44.3% of ESSER on certified and classified salaries, as well as payroll taxes and benefits. In Pasco, that number is at 69.5%. And Kennewick and Richland combined is 68.2%.

Districts should be using these funds knowing they’re provided only once, and should avoid creating a continued obligation they may not be able to fund, Kelly said.

“It’ll basically be a local decision. They’ll have to figure out what the demand is for that and it’s basically an educational opportunity issue, first and foremost, and then it’s also a fiscal puzzle,” he said.

Programs that are having the largest impact on students include those that fund re-engagement, after-school opportunities, teacher residencies, transitional kindergarten and professional development opportunities, say OSPI’s ESSER project managers, Sirena Wu and Robin Howe.

Both state and local school officials are unsure how much learning loss students had during the pandemic, but noted that efforts to re-engage them one-on-one have been successful.

School districts statewide have spent 41% of their $2.6 billion that’s available to them.

Washington districts have until September 2023 to spend the remaining $200 million in ESSER 2, and until September 2024 to spend the remaining $1.3 billion in ESSER 3.

What’s being funded next

The federal government has stipulated that 20% of ESSER 3 money will be used to address learning loss and other impacts to students cause by the pandemic.

Richland used $700,000 in ESSER 3 funds to cover summer school in 2021 and 2022. Sherman said they’ll continue the program next summer, too.

The district also will use $150,000 in “seed money” to support individual building requests for student needs over the next couple years.

Kennewick’s focus will be to continue providing in-person mental health counseling and online tutoring.

Districts also are using ESSER to pay for HVAC replacements and upgrades.

Richland is allocating about $575,000, and Pasco has dolled out about $1.86 million for building maintenance issues.

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