Oregon school districts have received over $1.5 billion in pandemic relief funds in the last two years through three different federal funding efforts. That’s a lot, compared to about $135 million in federal Title I funds sent to Oregon public schools annually and in the context of roughly $4.8 billion schools regularly receive in federal and state grants over a two-year budget cycle.

First, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER was signed into law in March 2020, as part of the CARES Act. These funds, $13.2 billion nationally, were directed to keeping instruction going, even when school buildings were shut down. The money went to laptops, hotspots and the costs of basically moving the country’s whole public school system online.

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Another round of funding approved in January 2021, referred to as ESSER II, provided an additional $54.3 billion in funding to schools across the country. It was aimed at helping schools reopen and providing money for personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer. It also allows districts to spend funds on instructional support, such as summer programming and helping students transition back to classrooms.

And last March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which nearly doubled the previous rounds of pandemic spending on schools, sending $122 billion to the nation’s schools. That latest round came with a specific caveat: at least 20% of funds must go towards addressing learning loss, or as the Oregon Department of Education calls it, “unfinished learning.” Oregon received $1.1 billion under this funding mechanism, known as ESSER III.

This one-time funding is in addition to federal and state funding streams dedicated to specific student groups (federal Title 1 for students from low-income families, for example) or tied to specific goals (the Measure 98 High School Success fund or the Student Investment Account, both of which allocate money based on specific state legal requirements).

Districts were required to submit ESSER III plans for the first year back in October. Those plans vary in detail from district to district. Officials with the Oregon Department of Education said there was some discussion with districts in the planning process, but all were ultimately approved.

And the main way the Oregon Department of Education provides oversight and monitor district spending is after the money’s been spent — when districts go to the state for reimbursements.

“The critical role that we play is to monitor district expenditures and that’s done through the reimbursement requests,” said Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill.

As of March 24, districts have millions of dollars yet to be claimed from ESSER I, ESSER II and ESSER III, according to ODE reimbursement databases for each fund.

Stand For Children executive director Toya Fick has been in conversation with a couple of districts about spending.

Between staffing shortages, COVID-19 mandates and daily questions and concerns about buses and keeping schools open, Fick said she understands that districts have a lot going on and that these funds may not be top of mind.

“There are a lot of things on fire right now and they’re just trying to put them out as they go, every day,” Fick said.

“...We’re all still sort of piecing life together right now,” Fick said.

More than 93% of ESSER I funds have been claimed, about $106 million of $114 million for Oregon school districts. But four school districts have yet to claim any funds, including Hillsboro. Districts have until Sept 20, 2022, to use these funds.

But when it comes to ESSER II and ESSER III, the majority of federal funds have not been claimed.

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Only 33% of ESSER II funds have been claimed, with over 150 school districts seeking reimbursement for at least some of their funds. But, according to the ODE data, 47 districts have yet to claim any funds, including Lake Oswego, Hillsboro and Greater Albany Public Schools. Almost $160 million of more than $484 million has been claimed. Districts have another year and a half — until Sept 30, 2023 — to spend those funds.

ODE Director of School Finance and School Facilities Mike Wiltfong said district spending varies depending on a district’s budget and priorities.

“There is broad discretion in spending strategies at the local level, so it doesn’t come as a surprise they may be spending out of a later tranche before fully expending an earlier tranche,” Wiltfong said in an email to OPB. “This is likely due to budgeting and timelines for the various grants, where multiple ESSER funded programs/positions are likely operating in parallel.”

Wiltfong adds that Oregon districts, like districts nationally, continue to face issues with spending federal funds due to staffing and resource issues.

Hillsboro School District financial officer Michelle Morrison said the district did not use any of the $32 million it had available in combined ESSER funds last school year “due to the modified service models” of distance learning and then hybrid school.

“Instead, we have carried the funds forward and allocated them on an annual basis as part of the regular budget development cycle,” district officials said in a response to OPB.

Morrison said the district will request funds through the reimbursement system by the end of the fiscal year, in June. So far this school year, Morrison said the district has spent from all three ESSER funding streams to add classified staff, transportation and academic and mental health supports.

Next year, the district plans to spend on staffing, including campus security, contact tracing help and technical support workers. Some funds will continue to be spent into the 2023-2024 school year.

Wiltfong said the state anticipates an increase in reimbursement requests as the end of the fiscal year, June 30, gets closer.

And when it comes to ESSER III, Oregon’s largest source of pandemic federal funds, there’s a ton of money left in state coffers. Only 5.1% of funds have been claimed so far from that latest round of funding, with less than half of Oregon school districts and education service districts filing any reimbursement requests. But districts have time — it doesn’t have to be spent until Sept. 30, 2024.

But not every reimbursement request is accepted, especially if the district cannot connect it to the allowable uses for ESSER funds — because the spending wasn’t related closely enough to learning or pandemic needs. Capital projects were most often rejected.

“If the department determines that it doesn’t fit within the allowable uses, then we would deny that reimbursement,” Gill said.

“That would mean that the district, if they had already made that investment, can try to move away from it, if they haven’t made the investment, then they could stop it in process, or make use of one of the other funds that they have.”

So far, 19 requests to use ESSER II or ESSER III funds were initially denied. After reevaluating, 13 projects were approved or are pending approval. Expenditures that were later approved include vape sensors at eight Gresham-Barlow schools, as well as asbestos abatement and a roof replacement in Reedsport.

Six requests remain denied, including lighting and a PA system for the Marcola school district in Lane County, outreach vehicles in Medford and conversion to a paperless finance system in Klamath County.

“Most requests were denied because there was not a strong enough connection to addressing the pandemic or improving education overall,” said ODE officials in an email to OPB.

Looking to the future for Oregon schools with these funds, Fick hopes school leaders get a chance to think and evaluate spending before time runs out.

“I worry if we build the house too quickly, it will crumble and we won’t have learned anything and things won’t have been made better for the kids who really need it the most.”

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