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Tracking how Delaware spends federal COVID relief funds earmarked for education proves challenging

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Delaware Public Media
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Delaware school graphic

The First State continues spending the more than $600 million it received in federal COVID-19 relief funds, but understanding where all that money is going and what impact it’s having is no easy task.

This week, contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look at what we do know about how school districts and charters are using the massive influx of funding, as well as the hurdles the public faces in following along.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on how school districts and charters are using COVID-19 relief funds

As Delaware’s public education system continues to spend the more than $600 million it has received in federal COVID-19 relief funds, interested citizens are finding it’s not easy to see where the money is going and educators are acknowledging it won’t be easy to determine if the dollars are being well spent.

As of August 22, Delaware school districts and charter schools had reported spending $236.9 million of the more than $600 million received in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) since March 2020, according to the state Department of Education. Federal regulations require that the money be spent by the end of the schools’ 2024 summer sessions.

Districts and charters have a wide range of discretion in how to use the funds. Key areas for spending include combating learning loss, addressing the mental health needs of students and staff, improving educational technology, and creating healthier environments inside school buildings. The $600 million-plus dwarfs the $119 million received through the federal Race to the Top competition in 2011 as the largest pot available for discretionary spending in the state’s school system.

First State Educate, an advocacy group founded in 2019 whose mission is to “catalyze radical change in education,” took a first stab at examining the data last month. The group extracted figures from the Department of Education’s ESSER Financial Transparency Report to create a series of tables and charts showing district and charter spending. It then hosted a virtual conversation with Secretary of Education Mark Holodick and Colonial School District Superintendent Jeff Menzer to discuss the numbers.

While pleased with how the virtual meeting went, Laurisa Schutt, First State Educate’s founder and executive director, says the project “feels very unfinished. They [Holodick and Menzer] said it was too early to tell, and it certainly is.”

A key problem, Menzer says, is that the numbers First State Educate generated – based on spending reported through July 18 of this year – are “a snapshot, a moment in time,” that don’t necessarily reflect a school district’s overall plans for the money. (The Financial Transparency Report website has been updated this week, showing spending reported through August 22.)

Consider this example from EastSide Charter School, a K-8 school in northeast Wilmington that is receiving more than $4.1 million in relief funds and had spent a little more than $817,000, almost 20 percent of its total, by July 18. The data First State Educate compiled indicated that about 10 percent of what EastSide had spent (roughly $80,000) went toward building improvements.

But that’s not an accurate reflection of EastSide’s spending plan, Head of School Aaron Bass says, because about $2 million – nearly half of the funds the school will receive – will go toward installing a new air conditioning system in its 60-year-old building. The work won’t be done until next summer, so it’s not going to show up in the Transparency Report until a contractor is selected and payments are made.

“You’ve got to ask them, ‘you’ve got a lot of money available, what can you do for my child now?’”
Laurisa Schutt, founder and executive director of First State Educate

Just as the early spending numbers don’t necessarily indicate the priorities of a district or charter school, there are no surefire metrics to easily determine the academic payoff value of each ESSER dollar spent. In some instances – such as spending on school HVAC systems or laptop computers in 2020-21 when remote or hybrid learning was required – there are no direct correlations. In others, like expanded summer programs, officials said, the number of participants is too small to make meaningful comparisons.

Menzer, the Colonial superintendent, says one of the best things adults can do to make sure officials are accountable is to study district or charter ESSER spending plans, which should be posted online, and ask school leaders how they’re following through on those plans.

Schutt, however, says that most parents aren’t interested in charter or district plans. They want to know, she says, what can be done to improve their own child’s academic standing. “You’ve got to ask them, ‘you’ve got a lot of money available, what can you do for my child now?’” she says.

Nevertheless, the data compiled by First State Educate indicates that districts and charters have established different priorities in spending the funds available to them.

Here are some examples. (The amounts shown are for grants awarded and amounts spent, as of July 18, as tallied by First State Educate.)

Woodbridge

($16,314,384.99 in grants; $2,162,367.89 spent)

As with the EastSide Charter example, major building improvements – replacing the boiler in the district’s Early Childhood Education Center and most likely in the district’s middle school – will ultimately consume about half of the district’s $16.1 million in ESSER funds, but those numbers don’t show up yet as expenditures, Superintendent Heath Chasanov says.

In most districts, spending on programming to compensate for learning loss has fallen in the range of 30 to 50 percent of expenses through July 18, and Woodbridge is no exception. But the district in northwestern Sussex County stands out for allocating about one-third of its early spending on mental health needs.

Learning loss and mental health issues go hand in hand, Chasanov says, and the needs were accentuated at both ends of the K-12 spectrum. With schools moving to all-remote operations in the spring of 2020 and transitioning to hybrid learning for most of the 2020-21 school year, students entering first grade had never been in a school building for kindergarten, putting them behind both academically and socially. And high schoolers “checked out at a higher rate” from remote learning than students in lower grades, taking themselves out of the path to graduation.

To compensate, Woodbridge hired “family support para-educators” to assist struggling families, added after-school and summer academic intervention programs for elementary students and hired a “credit recovery” counselor to identify high school students who had fallen behind and help them secure the credits needed to graduate, Chasanov said.

At the start of the pandemic, Woodbridge also invested in laptop computers and securing wireless “hot spots” so students in this largely low-income district with spotty internet service could learn remotely, he said.

Christina

($77,512,979.05 in grants; $26,543,871.70 spent)

While other school systems have planned building improvements that haven’t shown up yet as expenditures, the Christina School District has already used about 40 percent of the $26.5 million it has spent – about $11 million – for building needs. Christina was able to allot a significant chunk of its early ESSER spending to this area because it had previously identified older buildings that needed upgrades to their HVAC systems but had not yet received state approval to begin this work, Superintendent Dan Shelton said. Also, he said, the funds enabled Christina to add a new air purification system, one that is capable of removing harmful pollutants such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and spores, at all of the district’s schools.

Like Woodbridge, one of Christina’s first uses of the federal funds was to buy more laptops for its students to facilitate remote learning. With schools shut down, Christina invested heavily in “learning pods,” off-school sites usually hosted by nonprofit organizations where students could learn remotely under adult supervision. As schools reopened, Christina added summer programs to serve students with the greatest academic needs and added tutors to supplement regular classroom instruction.

Colonial

($45,427,213.18 in grants; $5,340,006.87 spent)

Through mid-July, Colonial had barely tapped into its $45.4 million in available aid, but that doesn’t mean the district is hoarding its funds, Superintendent Menzer says.

An air conditioning project at the district’s Southern Elementary School has been twice delayed because of supply chain issues, so that spending won’t show up until February, at the earliest. Also not showing up yet is the $1 million or so recently spent on smart boards for many classrooms and more than $3 million on a new English Language Arts curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade, Menzer says.

That ELA curriculum provides another example of why it will be difficult to measure the value of some of the ESSER spending, Menzer says. One baseline would be how much students entering sixth grade this fall improved from when they entered second grade. He explained that Colonial could compare that data with how much this year’s second graders improve by the time they finish fifth grade – but it’s going to take four years to collect that data.

Colonial didn’t have to spend much on educational technology because it had already equipped every student with a laptop computer, Menzer says.

Like Christina, Colonial invested in learning pods to give students places to learn with adult supervision while schools were closed.

Colonial also created a new position – an extended learning opportunities supervisor – to coordinate expanded after-school, Saturday and summer programs. “In the past, every school in the district was doing their own thing” with these programs, Menzer says.

The district has also doubled down on tutoring through the Reading Assist Institute and expects to keep the tutoring in place until the ESSER funds run out two years from now.

Appoquninimink

($12,129,207 in grants; $9,241,045.87 spent)

ESSER funding is somewhat of a sore point in this relatively affluent southern New Castle County district because Appoquinimink’s allocation pales in comparison with districts of similar size, according to Eric Loftus, the district’s finance director.

“Our district doesn’t have a high level of poverty, but we do have English learners and special needs students [who experienced learning loss]."
Eric Loftus, finance director for Appoquinimink School District

Appoquinimink, with 12,466 students, received just over $12 million, less than one-sixth the amount received by Christina, which has 13,553 students. The reason: the federal government weighted its allocations according to percentages of students eligible for federal Title I programs, which benefit low-income children.

Having a relatively small allocation helps explain why Appoquinimink spent three-quarters of its grants in a short time frame.

“Our district doesn’t have a high level of poverty, but we do have English learners and special needs students” who experienced learning loss, Loftus said.

Like other districts, Appoquinimink focused quickly on making sure that every student had a laptop computer. As the district transitioned to hybrid learning, with some students in school and others at home, it invested in classroom cameras so teachers could teach in-person and remotely at the same time, as well as new learning platforms that enabled teachers to keep better track of progress made by students who were learning remotely.

Appoquinimink has added tutors for elementary students who need additional supports and will continue to use them until funds run out, according to Rebecca Feathers, director of preschool and elementary education.

EastSide Charter

($4,161,038 in grants; $817,184.89 spent) 

While nearly one-half of EastSide’s ESSER funds will eventually be used for the new air conditioning system, the school’s top early priorities were equipping all its students with laptops and access to internet hot spots and providing those students, most of whom are from low-income families, with strong mental health supports, Bass said.

That meant building out a staff to include psychologists, counselors and social workers to meet the special needs of the school’s population. While many traditional districts have been wary of using ESSER funds to add staff because they’re not sure whether they can maintain those positions when the money runs out, charters – although they typically have tight budgets – do have more flexibility in how they use their funds. Also, Bass said the school has sufficient cash reserves to run at a deficit for a year or two and projected enrollment increases will eventually lead to increases in state funding that would cover the costs of the enlarged staff.

Starting this fall, EastSide will also increase its academic supports by using three or four Americorps workers as tutors to give extra help to struggling students during free periods throughout the school day, he said.

Looking back and toward the future

As districts and charters plotted their strategies for using ESSER funds, many took to heart the lessons learned a decade ago when federal Race to the Top funding launched innovative programs to support high-needs children only to have them wither away when the grants expired. “You don’t want to invest in things you cannot sustain,” Menzer says.

So, rather than create new permanent positions, districts and some charters are opting to meet their needs by contracting with outside agencies – the Reading Assist Institute, Boys & Girls Clubs, for example – to provide tutoring, extended day programs and other services.

The reluctance to increase staff has also led to an increased focus on facilities’ needs – upgrading roofs, windows, heating and ventilation systems in order to improve air quality. These moves, school leaders say, could improve learning by making buildings more comfortable. And, from a financial perspective, using the federal funds eliminates the need to seek residents’ approval for property tax increases when issuing bonds to pay for construction projects.

"You don’t want to invest in things you cannot sustain."
Colonial School District Superintendent Jeff Menzer

Looking ahead, some school leaders view the planning being done now as a preliminary exercise of how they might operate if the state ever reforms its school funding system to give districts more flexibility in making budgetary decisions.

It’s not so much about specific decisions that are made now, Menzer says, but more about examining the processes districts use to make those decisions and how they might be applied in a more flexible spending environment.

Getting more information

For those who care primarily about how charter schools and districts have already spent their ESSER funds, the place to look is the state Department of Education’s ESSER Financial Transparency Report. Navigating the database can be a challenge, especially since the home page for the report is essentially a blank form, but instructions are available to assist those willing to make the effort.

A better source for school families, Menzer says, is the ESSER spending plan that each district and charter school has created. These plans should be available on district and charter websites, and so should periodic updates on how funds have been spent.

School families should look at the plans, Menzer says, and then they should ask school administrators how well the plans are being followed.

Schutt believes that many parents are more interested in their own children than in any broader plans a school might have. To address such individual concerns, she says parents should be asking teachers and principals to describe the supplemental programs they offer and to find out how their own child could benefit from them.

Additionally, Schutt says parents should be asking school administrators what changes they hope to see as a result of the investments they’re making and how they will determine whether the changes have been successful.

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.