This article provides a short summary and analysis of ESSER III guidance.
TEA recently announced the availability of $11.2 billion in federal funding made available to school districts through ESSER III under the American Rescue Plan. This is a substantial sum of money, though amounts vary significantly from district to district.
Taking a deliberative thoughtful approach to spending these dollars will be critical to ensure they are allocated in ways that will meaningfully impact your recovery efforts. Here are some things you might want to consider:
1. Take a breath and take your time. According to TEA guidance posted here in question T-Q3, districts have through September 30, 2024, to use the funds, so long-term careful planning is possible and prudent.
2. Stay up to date with changing guidance. Because the program is just rolling out, we expect the FAQ linked above to change over time as new questions are posed and considered. Make sure you are staying up to date with new information as it comes out. We will do our best to help you with that.
3. Remember that these dollars are very flexible. According to question GS - Q1, the intent of ESSER III dollars is to address the impact COVID-19 has had on elementary and secondary schools. According to question AU-Q1, LEAs have the flexibility to use the funds on one of 15 allowable activities, beginning with any allowable activity under ESEA, IDEA, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, or the Perkins Act and ending with other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in the LEA, including continuing to employ existing staff of the LEA to the greatest extent possible. In between are a host of ideas that include focusing on low-income students, purchasing supplies to sanitize buildings, purchasing technology, addressing learning loss and making facility upgrades that reduce the risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards. Take time to read the entire list and think about your district's needs and priorities.
4. Remember that these dollars are one-time. Just because an idea is allowable doesn't mean it is advisable. Remember that these are one-time non-recurring dollars. This means your district needs a plan to phase back down to reality over time. If, for example, you use these funds to provide an increase to core salary, will you be able to sustain that increase three or five years from now? Can you make other adjustments that will allow you to sustain that increase? Have you considered investments in salary that would be easier to phase out over time (additional pay for additional work, either through extended learning time or planning time over the next few years, or short-term investments in a more reliable better quality substitute pool, for example). Some of these ideas have the combined benefit of helping provide targeted supports to help address learning loss while also providing additional pay to staff. TASB has also posted an article here with some ideas about pay planning on a limited budget.
5. Consider whether a portion of funds may be needed to address existing budget challenges. Some districts face revenue loss associated with COVID-19. For example, many districts are projecting a continued loss of enrollment in the 2021-2022 school year and beyond as the ADA hold harmless will no longer be available after this year. One idea is to use ESSER III funds to cover existing costs, thus reducing deficits that many districts currently face either this year or in the next few years. Questions F-Q3 through F-Q9 take you through some things to consider if you are planning to use ESSER III in this way, including making sure that you will meet other federal grant program MOE requirements through programs like IDEA or Title 1 and that you will meet maintenance of equity requirements from the American Rescue Plan (more on that below). You should also take care to right-size the budget in the medium to long term. Although ESSER III might plug a budget hole this year, or even over the next few years depending on the size of the hole and the amount of funding you are projected to receive, you will eventually need to be able to live within your projected formula funding. So if you are going down this road, consider long-term plans to bring revenue and spending into alignment. This also may be a good time to determine whether there are spending reductions that are warranted in some areas that would free up ESSER funds to be used for new items that could help your district recover. If enrollment declines mean that you are over-staffed in some areas, consider whether it is better to maintain those ratios using ESSER funds or to reduce spending in some areas and supplement the regular program on a short-term basis through expenditures that will have a more substantive impact.
6. Make sure you comply with maintenance of equity requirements. If you are planning to supplant existing spending, be careful to do so in a way that does not reduce the spending of state and local funds on high poverty campuses more than other campuses or you may run afoul of the American Rescue Plan's maintenance of equity requirements. Question GR-Q6 says that an LEA shall not reduce (1) per-pupil spending of state and local funds or (2) FTEs for any high poverty school by an amount that exceeds the total reduction within the LEA. A high poverty school is defined as a school with a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than the median school percentage of the LEA or the LEA's grade span. We expect more information on this requirement soon.
7. Make sure you comply with community engagement requirements. Question AP-Q3 notes requirements for the LEA to engage in meaningful consultation with stakeholders and give opportunity for public input around use of funds. This will require outreach to specific groups of stakeholders noted in the FAQ and the creation of a plan that is presented in an understandable format that will be posted on the website within 30 days of receiving the NOGA. You may want to think of this as an opportunity to generate enthusiasm over your district's recovery plans.
8. Make sure you reserve 20% to address learning loss. Question AU-Q2 explains that LEAs must use at least 20% of their ESSER III allocation to address learning loss through "evidence-based interventions, such as summer learning, extended day comprehensive after school programs, or extended school year programs and to ensure interventions respond to student academic, social, and emotional needs and to address the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on student populations defined in ESEA, Title I, Part A, students experiencing homelessness, and youth in foster care."
9. Be prepared for scrutiny over the use of funds. Question AM - Q1 reminds districts that a greater degree of monitoring of stimulus funding is expected as compared to other federal funds. Make sure you are prepared for this and have followed all guidance. Given an investment of this size, taxpayers and the public are going to want to know what investments were made and how they have impacted the district's recovery efforts. Be planning on the front end to be able to answer these questions down the road.
10. Don't miss an opportunity to make transformative investments. For some districts, these dollars represent a very significant short-term increase in overall spending. Consider the long-term impact of today's investments. Would certain infrastructure investments reduce operating costs down the road? Would targeted interventions at specific grade levels result in long-term academic achievement gains? Would community outreach help you find missing students and bring them back to school? The list of needs is great and you will want to choose those things that provide significant payoff over the long term.