CCS puts emergency COVID funding to good use despite challenges

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Districts across North Carolina have left millions of COVID-19 relief funds on the table by not allocating them, but that’s not the case here: Chatham County Schools has clear plans for the nearly $19 million it will ultimately get.

The clock to spend that money keeps ticking, with school districts needing to decide on allocations by September 2024.

All told, North Carolina school districts and charter schools have been given a total of $6.2 billion in federal COVID-19 funds, but thus far have only spent $2.4 billion, according to the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction.

Chatham County has a total allotment of federal funds of $18,777,352. As it stands, CCS has all of its COVID-related emergency funding allocated and budgeted through 2024; so far, about $5 million of that has been spent, with plans to spend the balance by June 30, 2024.

Amanda Moran, assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support for CCS, said the district utilized planning and prioritizing when considering needs.

“The reason we don’t have a surplus of unspent funds is that we had a strong plan from the beginning,” Moran said. “We planned out our budget ahead of time with focus groups, surveys, feedback and principal meetings.”

Moran said CCS is on track to spend its allocation of funds because it’s stuck to its original plan.

Red tape

Of the funding allocated to CCS, the largest portion of it, 20%, must be designated to learning loss. That’s the case for all school districts that received money through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).

Other major areas of funding for CCS include human capital, health and safety, and professional development and innovation.

Because COVID-related emergency funding comes from the federal government, it also comes with specific designations. Some of the money has to go toward learning tools, or summer programs, or literacy improvement. Moran said while this can be a barrier, it’s also helpful for the money to have specific uses.

“It’s not like we got $20 million to just go forth and do whatever,” Moran said. “It’s been a lot of moving parts to make sure each pocket of funds gets spent on exactly what it’s earmarked for.”

Following the announcement of ESSER grants to school districts, CCS assigned a person within its budget office to be in charge of federal funds. This staffer meets weekly with Moran and CCS Chief Financial Officer Tony Messer to provide updates on the grants and make adjustments as needed.

The district also has monthly finance meetings where it tracks how much federal funding has been spent and how much money is in each respective account.

One of the other challenges of ESSER money and other emergency COVID funding is that each grant has differing expiration dates. Some of the money expired at the end of the school year; other grants don’t end until 2024, which Moran said has been a tedious thing to keep track of.

“For example, our summer learning plan is costing more than we budgeted because we have been forced to plan based on numbers we don’t have data for yet,” Moran said. “We have to continue to have conversations to readjust.”

Moran said another challenge in properly utilizing the funding is that it has often been a moving target. On several occasions, she said, there were plans in place, but new grants were announced and the budget had to shift.

“They keep giving us stuff, which is great, but we want to be able to spend that money on something quality,” Moran said. “We want a well thought-out plan, but sometimes when money falls from the sky, it’s hard to do that.”

Because the spontaneous funding comes from varying sources, it also comes with sudden deadlines that have forced rapid readjustment. Each grant also requires paperwork and monitoring to ensure it’s used in the proper manner.

Along with differing deadlines, the ESSER funds are also not permanent solutions. The funds are only meant to help schools recover from COVID-19. Moran said after the funding runs out, the district will evaluate the outcomes the ESSER money created and examine which programs should continue. Then, those programs will need to be funded at a local level by the district and the Chatham County Board of Commissioners.

“With large funding sources like this, we will work to identify areas in the plan that were effective and will seek funding beyond the final year if we wish to keep the items,” Moran said. “This could be in the form of moving funds at the local level to pay for things in the ESSER plan or this could be expansion budget requests for the county in the future.”

Benefits to CCS

The money from ESSER has created opportunities for CCS to hire several new positions. This includes a dropout prevention specialist at each high school, three new social workers and three new English as a Second Language (ESL) professionals.

Moran said human capital is where the district is able to see the most direct impact from ESSER funds because it puts more people in the schools to help support students. However, when the money expires, the district will need to develop a plan to keep those employees.

“The ESSER fund is meant to be used on things that are above and beyond what our normal budget pays for,” Moran said. “At the end of those four years, we will have to have a plan for how we can keep those positions if we see they had benefits.”

In total, CCS has hired 53 new positions through ESSER money with both school and district-based positions becoming available. The money has also created a $1.6 million pool for staff bonuses and ongoing recruitment efforts for those positions.

Additional health and safety positions were also created with the hiring of two additional nurses and 20 Certified Nurse Assistants.

Moran said the positions created by ESSER money have forced the district to evaluate the actual benefit of the current position structure. For example, many elementary schools have designated positions for students who receive in-school suspensions, but elementary schools rarely have significant enough behavior issues to warrant using money to fund that position. Meanwhile, ESSER funds have opened the possibilities of more counselors in schools, which was a desperate need in Chatham. So, when the federal money expires, positions and local funding may be reallocated.

CCS has also developed metrics for measuring the outcomes of ESSER funding. While the data won’t be finalized until August, there are barometers to measure the effectiveness of each sector of funding. Metrics are outlined for new positions, curricula, student services and direct school service programs such as summer schooling and virtual academies.

Of the data available, Moran said the most effective use of ESSER funds has been academic interventions. Programs and strategies to help underperforming students are often unaffordable to the district, but emergency funds have made programs like personalized skill gap platforms more accessible.

“We’ve seen a lot of students make significant gains with research-based intervention materials,” Moran said. “We were very specific with what we bought to ensure it was a highly rated program.”

Moran said these programs are like adding more tools in the toolbox — it provides more ways to meet the needs and problems of students. And once these intervention kits are purchased, the school doesn’t need to keep buying them, so the one time costs creates long-term benefits.

Next steps

CCS will continue to host budget meetings to evaluate its progress on its ESSER plans. These evaluations include examining areas to continue after ESSER money expires and seeking additional funding from other federal grant programs.

The district also said they will continue to have conversations with the board of education and the county’s board of commissioners about ongoing budget priorities. These updates are all in preparation for the federal audits of the district in 2025.

For more information about ESSER funding in Chatham County Schools, click here. 

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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