5 Mistakes to Avoid When Spending COVID Relief Funds (Reviews)

Imagine it is 2023. Experts judge how each school district has spent its emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools. There will be successes but also mistakes made in 2021 and 2022. What will these mistakes be? And what can district leaders do now to prevent them?

It’s worth remembering that the $ 190 billion COVID-19 relief fund is a big experiment in a way. Federal money is so flexible that I have a hard time finding anything in the rules that districts cannot use to. While the law states that 20% of the money is to be used to “absorb learning losses”, the remaining funds can be used for whatever is deemed “reasonable and necessary”. In other words, the districts have enormous latitude. This creates an opportunity for revolutionary spending on behalf of students and spending mistakes as well.

Namely, I share my predictions on some likely mistakes that district leaders will make and some prescriptions on how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Spending in a way that creates a disruptive tax cliff

Thanks to federal help, districts feel comfortable right now, but that help wears off in 2024. And if enrollment declines that many districts today see continue, those districts will have even less money. from local and state sources. Districts can avoid the chasm by sticking to short-term spending commitments that match the short-term nature of federal money instead of locking in long-term spending. This means paying allowances for staff who take on additional duties and using contract staff instead of hiring new employees who expect continuous employment. For districts facing a teacher shortage, this means using one-time hiring or retention bonuses targeting only areas of need (for example, STEM or special education teachers) instead of increasing the salary of the teacher. system-wide base.

A corollary error is to use emergency funds to compensate for revenue shortfalls due to permanent loss of enrollment. This will only delay tough decisions on district downsizing until aid wears off, while using dollars in a way that may not do much to address the academic effects of the pandemic. on students.

Mistake 2: Deploying funds inequitably across schools

State agencies now publish data on school spending by school this will make it clear how much per student federal funding ultimately landed on each school. It is therefore even more important for district leaders to anticipate the impact of today’s spending decisions on equity in the months to come. For example, will adding a counselor to each school or an overall percentage-based salary increase ultimately generate more dollars per student for richer schools? The answer will be yes when the wealthier schools are smaller (the counselor will cost more per student) or have more experienced teachers (because experienced teachers are paid more than less experienced ones). Likewise, districts end up using dollars unfairly when high need schools spend months with vacant positions or when students in poorer schools are less likely to participate in tutoring programs or new after-school programs. or when an investment in facilities is made in a single school. One way for districts to ensure that spending is not unfair is to pay fixed amounts per student to each school (say $ 250 for each student plus an additional $ 100 per student with low income or learning English).

Mistake 3: Issuing problematic supply contracts that come back to haunt executives

In many districts, 2021 will be the supply-palooza. Indeed, contracts can be excellent vehicles for increasing capacity, for spending quickly while avoiding a fiscal cliff, and for providing innovative ways of delivering services. But supply contracts that carry even a whiff of possible problems can be problematic: contracts tend to arouse suspicion, and with fresh money in the mix, there are new suppliers and new promises are made. . Pre-pandemic examples of contract conflicts for district leaders abound, from an untendered contract for budgeting software in Kent, Wash., To a massive iPad contract in Los Angeles. this led to damaging criticism from then-superintendent John Deasy.

To avoid problems, leaders will want to follow the steps that public schools in Montgomery County in Maryland took when that district agreed to pay a start.business $ 169 million per year over 16 years for the rental of electric school buses. These steps include ensuring that contracts have measurable results with ongoing payment backed by vendors meeting performance targets (and if they don’t, giving districts a chance). Service contracts with students should include measures of student outcomes or participation rates. And contracts should be publicly reviewed, voted on at board meetings, and made fully transparent (perhaps following the Chicago example where every contract is online in a searchable database.).

Mistake 4: Not making sure the school district community sees and values ​​the investments

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise? The corollary here is this: If a district makes an investment in helping students and no one knows it, will anyone appreciate it? Leaving the community and school staff to wonder, “Where has all this federal money gone?” Is an error. District leaders should repeat what they buy, clearly communicate the connection between investments and students, and encourage principals to engage with teachers and parents on how investments are going.

Ideally, district leaders focus on the link between spending and student goals. Like this: “We spent $ 15 million, or about $ 125 per student, on six hours of weekly tutoring for our most vulnerable students to get them back on track in math. This way principals, teachers, guardians and parents can connect the dots long after the budget is approved.

Mistake 5: Investing Without Showing Real Results For Students

It is true that Congress did not ask for much in return for billions of humanitarian aid. There are no specific goals for students although the public expects the money to help student learning, according to a survey of parents from the Walton Family Foundation last spring. But in 2023, if districts can’t show off what they’ve accomplished for students, spending choices are doomed to fail.

This means that measuring student progress will be essential. This does not necessarily mean standardized tests (although comparing expenses and results by school is vital., regardless of the metric used). If spending on after-school enrichment is supposed to help attract reluctant families to in-person school, then leaders should measure the degree to which these students are actually returning. And if an investment doesn’t work, it’s time to make mid-course corrections to ensure success.

With the magnitude of the dollars at stake, missteps are inevitable. Some neighborhood choices have already made alarming headlines. But the plans aren’t set in stone, even after being subjected to the state. Perhaps the most important message for district leaders is this: There is still time to change spending decisions that will not go in the rearview mirror.

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