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Most Districts Say They Don’t Need More Time to Spend ESSER Dollars

Most school districts don’t plan to take advantage of the chance to extend their deadline for spending the last—and largest—round of federal pandemic-relief aid, new survey data show.

The Association of School Business Officials (ASBO International) last fall surveyed 116 districts across 38 states to gauge progress on spending ESSER dollars, the last round of which expires later this year. The organization published the results on Jan. 31.

Only 13 percent of respondents said they’ll seek permission from the federal government to use some federal relief money on contracts that extend past the deadline for spending the rest of the funds. Another 15 percent said they weren’t sure whether they’d seek approval for “late liquidation.” Nearly two-thirds of districts, 65 percent, said they wouldn’t seek an extension.

The findings offer the latest rebuke to speculation in recent years about whether school districts were spending ESSER funds quickly enough to meet the deadlines attached to them. They also show that while a number of districts have asked for more time to spend the relief aid, most don’t think they’ll actually need it.

Congress sent three rounds of COVID-relief aid totaling $190 billion to schools—well more than the federal government annually spends on K-12 education—between March 2020 and March 2021. Schools face a Sept. 30 deadline to commit the last round of funds, then a Jan. 30, 2025, deadline to “liquidate,” or actually spend, the money.

States can apply on districts’ behalf for up to 14 additional months to spend the money on contracts that extend beyond that deadline for items such as tutoring, mental health services, and construction.

Four in 5 district respondents to the ASBO survey said they’ve committed more than 50 percent of the third round of ESSER funds to specific expenses. Nearly one-third said they’ve already made commitments for their entire allocation.

Districts that invested ESSER dollars in recurring expenses like staff salaries likely will have a harder time transitioning to a post-ESSER budget landscape, said Elleka Yost, the director of advocacy and research for ASBO International.

“This feels like a 70-30 split: 70 percent of districts say it’s more of a fiscal slide rather than a cliff,” Yost said. “But you do have those 30 percent of districts that are struggling a little bit more with how to sustain programs.”

The ASBO International survey found that 64 percent of districts said sustainability, or averting a fiscal cliff, was a key factor driving ESSER spending decisions, behind only students’ rising mental health, behavioral, and social-emotional needs.

Districts differed widely on the share of ESSER dollars that went toward staffing, according to the survey. Roughly 38 percent of respondents said they spent at least half their ESSER haul on staffing. Thirty-one percent, however, put less than 25 percent toward staffing.

The question of how to continue funding compensation for necessary positions is on the minds of many school district leaders, recent media reports show. The Grand Island district in Nebraska, for instance, is planning to cut three-dozen counselors and mental health service providers. The Little Rock district in Arkansas is pondering dozens of layoffs to account for a $15 million deficit. And in Apache Junction, Ariz., the district is eliminating social worker positions after failing to come up with a source of revenue to pay for them post-ESSER.

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