Wisconsin school districts received $2.4 billion in pandemic relief funds over the last two years.
That’s according to a new report from the nonprofit Wisconsin Policy Forum, which breaks down how school districts in the state have used their federal pandemic relief funds.
That relief came in three rounds: The first as part of the CARES Act signed in March of 2020, the second as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, or CRRSA, signed in December of 2020, and the third from the American Rescue Plan signed in March of 2021.
From the first round of packages, the study showed that more than 90% of relief funds were used across three categories: educational technology, preparedness and response to COVID-19, and addressing long-term school closure.
When the second round of aid came in last year, the school year was beginning, and much had changed with regards to the pandemic. Sara Shaw authored the report. She says addressing the long-term closures of schools became the larger focus with that package.
“And that seems to make sense because after the first wave of investments happens, the first shock of COVID comes in, districts are now trying to figure out, ‘how do we invest such that we can keep operating as a school and be out of crisis mode so much and more being able to meet on a regular ongoing basis?,’” says Shaw.
School districts were forced to wait longer than anticipated to learn their allocation of the third relief package due to delays in the U.S. Department of Education approving the state’s plan. Without knowing how much money they would be receiving, Shaw says districts struggled to plan.
“The difference came in more for districts that were smaller and had smaller percentages of students from low-income households where that swing could be pretty large. And not knowing what their allocation would be could really affect their ability to budget effectively.”
School districts are now on their third round of pandemic funding. There’s a ticking clock to use those funds in the next two and a half years. Schools have barely dug into this round of pandemic funding: about .6 percent at the time of the report. Shaw is concerned that this could lead to unwise spending.
“I do think there is a risk that districts will engage in less-than-strategic spending for the sake of spending it all. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s been very difficult for district leaders to step away from the ongoing COVID crisis to figure out what to do with these dollars in a way that is 1) fiscally responsible, 2) makes a difference for kids, and 3) can account for something rather unique in Wisconsin which is the freeze on state revenue limits.”
The revenue limit freeze, coupled with inflation, have constrained school districts financially. Many may find themselves having to use relief funds to cover ongoing costs instead of putting them towards their original priorities.
“Some districts now feel like they have to choose between using these one-time funds to help cover inflationary expenses – which can create a lot of uncertainty and a potential fiscal cliff when those one-time funds run out – or not keeping up with inflation in their normal operational costs – which may or may not be a thing they can even choose to do – for the sake of maintaining the focus on what they wanted to do originally with these dollars in terms of one-time investments, particularly those with benefits for kids,” Shaw says.
Shaw urges districts to make one-time investments now that will pay dividends later – like boosting facilities, infrastructure, and professional development for staff.
“So my big tips are: 1) Start with ‘what do you know about what your kids need?’ and allocate according to that. And 2) think about ‘what are those one-time investments that can pay dividends in the long run?’”
Image courtesy of WORT News Dept on Flickr.