For schools and classrooms, the COVID pandemic created chaos, confusion and a historic, albeit finite pipeline of money.
Since 2020, Florida has received a total of nearly $10 billion over three rounds of money known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, or ESSER.
The latest and largest pot of ESSER funds allocated more than $6.3 billion to help public school districts and students across the state rebound from the pandemic and any learning loss suffered because of it.
According to Florida’s Department of Education, while Florida districts have spent nearly all the dollars from the round first of ESSER funds, they still have a little less than half of their second pot of money to spend and nearly 100 percent of the third and final installment of ESSER funds from the American Rescue Plan, also known as ESSER III or ARP funds.
“It’s not unusual,” said Chad Aldemann of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. The group has been studying pandemic relief money spending trends among school districts nationwide.
Recently, the Edunomics Lab found school districts across the country, including Florida, are not spending their third installment of ESSER dollars as quickly as they could.
“In general, there’s concern the pace of spending is not at or where it could or should have been,” he said.
In Florida, just 3.4
percent of school districts have started spending ESSER III funds with the Wakulla County school district near Tallahassee spending the most at 17 percent of its total ESSER III dollars and the Miami Dade County school district spending about 10 percent of its total pot of ESSER III money.
Aldemann says the pace of spending these dollars in Florida is a little lower than the national average.
One likely reason is Florida’s Department of Education (FL DOE) just granted school districts access to ESSER III funds last month.
While Congress approved the funds more than a year ago, Florida was the last state in the country to apply for the money. Questions to FL DOE about the delay and its impact on district spending of these funds were not responded to by the time of publishing.
Still, school districts maintain that what may look like slow or no spending is not the case.
“We keep hearing, oh school districts, you’re not spending your money,” said Tim Bargeron, Assistant Superintendent of Finance for the Manatee County School District on Florida’s west coast.
“Well, the majority of expenditures reside in salaries and benefits. We pay people every couple of weeks so we can only do a draw down the money every couple of weeks. So right now of course we’re sitting on a lot of money because we still have to pay out through the end of the year,” he explained.
Same in Pinellas County, where despite what it says on the state’s ESSER funds spending chart, the district has already spent $11 million of the $191 million allocated to the district in ESSER III funds.
Financial analysts caution if districts are sluggish in spending their ESSER money, they could face financial cliffs on the back end. In other words, they caution if districts use these federal dollars to hire more staff or give permanent raises, how will they cover those expenses when the money runs out?
Districts have a finite period of time to spend each round of ESSER dollars with the deadline for ESSER III spending ending in September 2024.
“How are school districts going to deal with it as we get closer to that deadline,” asked Aldemann. “Are they trying to get the money out any way as fast as they can? Or are they able to spend the money wisely,” he said. “It’s not a race and there’s not a right pace for this. But in general, the longer they wait the bigger the cliff will be on the backend and that’s concerning.”
When looking at overall spending rates of all ESSER funds by Florida school districts, a spokesperson from FL DOE described Florida as “one of the best.”
For a look at the pace of ESSER dollar spending by Florida school districts, the state updates its spending chart monthly. To learn more, CLICK HERE.