Florida school districts are scrambling to figure out why Florida's Department of Education (FDOE) is directing them to return some unspent pandemic relief dollars and then reapply for them.
"It was a bombshell, it was shocking, no-one was expecting it," explained Tim Bargeron, assistant superintendent of finance for the Manatee County School District on Florida's west coast.
The memo was sent to school district superintendents this past Friday.
In it, Suzanne Pridgeon, Deputy Commissioner of Finance and Operations for FDOE, tells Florida's 67 school districts, once the governor signs the General Appropriations Act, districts will have to "immediately revert" any unspent money from its second round of CARES Act dollars also known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds or ESSER.
The money is part of the billions in federal pandemic relief funds to help schools and students rebound from the pandemic.
The money in question was, specifically and originally allocated to districts to help pay for programs related to finding students who had been enrolled but went "missing" when the pandemic began and to help students who suffered from a loss of learning during the pandemic.
But in the new memo, FDOE informs districts in addition to having to reapply for the money in a new grant, any distributions from the new grants must be more focused on implementing “summer enrichment camps that target public school students' academic and extracurricular needs, after school programs, and individualized tutoring services that address public school students' academic, social and emotional needs."
Since those programs were also part of the original ESSER II grant, Bargeron isn't clear why returning the funds and then reapplying for them is necessary. It takes time and resources to reapply.
He's also unclear how programs already earmarked with the original grant money will be paid for if that money has to be returned and isn’t redistributed in time.
"It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Maybe I'm missing something," he said.
Bargeron explained this unexpected edict could leave his district reapplying for up to $3.3 million in unspent ESSER II funds. But like most districts, Bargeron said, while the money may look unspent on paper, it's already earmarked.
“We’ve been planning how we’re going to use these funds for over a year and now all of a sudden to just say, sorry, those plans have changed, give us our money back,” he said in frustration.
Sandra Himmel is the school Superintendent for Citrus County Schools and serves as President of The Florida Association of District School Superintendents. She was not aware of the state’s new ESSER II provisions until the memo came down.
"I was a little surprised when I read the letter, but once we got into it and called the DOE, it was a little easier to take," she said.
Himmel is concerned about making sure any money they return to the state and reapply for, is granted to the district, in full. She does not know why the department took this action.
"I can't give you the why Katie but I'm confident we’ll be able to tie everything we’re doing into the new grant," she said.
In an email late Tuesday afternoon, Jared Ochs, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education offered some explanations, stating it’s the law:
“The memo was a courtesy to advise districts that unspent ESSER II dollars are to revert and re-appropriate in accordance with the General Appropriations Act passed by the Florida Legislature. Any dollars not yet drawn down from the Department will be moved to a different grant beginning the next fiscal year.”
Districts remain unclear how returning the money, then reapplying for it could impact jobs and student programs already planned for. Last month, Florida districts received the third, final and largest sum of school pandemic relief funds which could offset the money they have to return and reapply for, explained Himmel.
Whether this turns out to just be a massive inconvenience or something more remains to be seen.
With the new fiscal year starting this summer, the Governor must sign the General Appropriations Act into law by June 30.
"I don't think it's fair we have to knee-jerk something we worked on so long. All of sudden in the middle of the year it's, 'Hey change your plan and develop a new plan.' These things take time and resources. So instead of focusing on starting school next year and next year’s budget, we have to now regroup and refocus to, 'OK, now what does this mean for ESSER II.' No, that’s not fair," Bargeron said.
Heather Frederick, the chief financial officer for the School District of Palm Beach County, released the following statement to WPTV:
"The Academic Acceleration allocation is fully expended for district operated schools but the District is pending approval of amendments. The Non-enrollment allocation is expected to have approximately $5.9 million available. District staff are still reviewing eligible expenses as well as the potential impact of having funds revert."