Valley districts look to spend millions of dollars in COVID relief funds

Posted 12/1/21

Valley school districts have received millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds, with potentially tens of millions more coming that will need to be spent in the next two years.

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Valley districts look to spend millions of dollars in COVID relief funds


Valley school districts have received millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds, with potentially tens of millions more coming that will need to be spent in the next two years.

That money, so far, has been aimed at a variety of expenses local districts have incurred as a result of the pandemic. But broad guidelines allow the funds to cover anything that may have been impacted by the pandemic, from technology to revamped air filtration systems to summer school programs.

Known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, or ESSER, the money has come from the federal government through the Arizona Department of Education in three tranches. Districts face deadlines to spend the money, the first of which comes on Sept. 30, 2022.

That money, particularly the third group of funding, is being eyed particularly to help with student achievement, as the state’s students saw standarized test scores drop 4% in English and 11% in math in 2021 compared with results from 2019. The test was not conducted in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Already spending

Most districts reported having spent all their first ESSER allotments, in many cases a significantly smaller amount that what came later. In most cases, districts are going through the second ESSER allotments and have until Sept. 30, 2023, to spend that money.

Pending is what is known as ESSER III, which in many cases was a significantly larger amount of money going to districts that has to be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.

Arizona overall received $264 million in ESSER I funding, which was allocated proportionally based on how much districts received in federal Title I-A funding aimed at helping low-income students.

Funding for ESSER II was significantly higher for Arizona, coming in at $1.08 billion. The state kicked in supplemental funding to ensure a baseline funding of $150,000 for every district or charter with slightly higher amounts for rural and remote schools and districts, according to ADE.

While local districts received millions of dollars from ESSER II, they stand to receive much more from ESSER III as the state will receive $2.33 billion and has begun allocations, though applications for the money are open through Feb. 1, 2022.

Where it’s gone

A roundup of districts covered by Independent Newsmedia found early funding rounds have been spent to bolster districts as student counts fell and test scores declined. Many districts are going through a process on the third funding round to see where local stakeholders want the money spent, a requirement of receiving the funds.

That’s the case in the Dysart Unified School District, which covers portions of Surprise and El Mirage. District officials said they received $3.9 million during the first round and another $16.1 million during the second. Of that, about $8.3 million is remaining.

That money, so far, was spent on software for online learning, guest teachers and facility cleanings among other things, officials said.

The district’s application is pending for the third funding round, but it expects to get slightly less than $36.5 million based on funding formulas, officials said.

In the southwest Valley, Liberty Elementary School District, which includes portions of Buckeye, has spent $622,354 of its total $4.8 million, with the bulk of that money — nearly $3.1 million — coming as part of ESSER III, said district spokesman Luke Garrison.

The money has gone toward a variety of things, from “continuity of education services” including summer school and tutoring to help students maintain their learning to personal protective equipment and technology.

Buckeye Elementary School District has spent $1.8 million of the nearly $11.3 million it expects to receive, with it estimating it will receive $7.2 million from ESSER III, according to Chad Lanese, the district’s executive director of student services.

“While we are expecting to receive $7.2 million for ESSER III, we have not yet received that funding as we are awaiting grant approval from the Arizona Department of Education,” he said.

Bigger districts received significantly more funding. The Peoria Unified School District, which includes portions of Peoria and Glendale, will end up receiving about $60.6 million through the three funding rounds, with nearly two-thirds of that pending with ESSER III.

District officials said the first funding round was spent on items related to online education and safety at schools, with all the money spent. The same priorities were used for the second round with about $6 million remaining.

The third funding round will be prioritized to help address learning loss, PUSD officials said. That will include a high-performing teacher incentive program, safety and crime prevention measures at schools and updating salary schedules for the district.

Litchfield Elementary School District, which includes portions of Litchfield Park, Goodyear and Buckeye, will receive about $11 million total between the three funds, with $7.1 million pending with its ADE application, said district spokeswoman Shelly Smith Hornback.

The district has about $1.5 million left from the first two funding rounds, and Smith Hornback said LESD’s goal was to maximize funding “by focusing on health and safety, staff retention, and enhancing academic achievement.”

The remaining money will look to curb staff attrition with employee stipends as well as putting money into PPEs, cleaning and salaries for those helping English language learners.

The district will rely on outreach to the community to develop priorities for the third round of funding, Smith Hornback said.

“We gathered feedback from families, staff, and our governing board to create an aggressive plan to help students recover from the learning loss that COVID has caused across the nation,” she said.

Scottsdale Unified School District has lined up $29.5 million in the three ESSER rounds, with roughly $22.37 million remaining to be spent.

Like others, SUSD officials are targeting their concerns about the impact the pandemic had on student learning, officials said.

Mesa Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, will have among the biggest pools of federal relief funding available with nearly $246 million granted through the ESSER program.

In a presentation in August, Mesa Associate Superintendent Holly Williams laid out the district’s priorities for spending the money, which included supporting students’ mental and physical health, developing academic recovery strategies, continuing strong classroom instruction, retaining teachers and staff, and innovating in education.

“So we feel like under these five umbrellas we can do a lot of good with the money that we’ve been allocated, and I think that there’s great opportunity here,” Williams said.

In contrast to Mesa, neighboring Apache Junction Unified School District received about $17.8 million total from all three funding rounds. District goals included working to help staff, getting more technology, bettering its English curriculum and continuing to preventative measures for COVID-19.

AJUSD Interim Superintendent Heather Wallace said there has been “lots of discussion and collaboration from stakeholders, administrators and staff to decide the needs of the district.”

In the fast growing Queen Creek Unified School District in the southeast Valley, district officials will have less money than their neighbors to spend, totaling about $7.1 million over the three funding rounds.
District officials in Queen Creek targeted staff salaries, supplies and technology so far for its purchases.


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