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Schools shown share of covid-relief funds

by Cynthia Howell | April 8, 2021 at 6:38 a.m.
Springdale School District board and staff members enter the district Washington building at 800 E. Emma Ave. in September during a work session to evaluate how the district is using its buildings and properties. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Mary Jordan)

Arkansas school district leaders knew that the third and latest round of federal covid-19 relief money would be the largest distribution to date. District leaders now know just what those amounts are likely to be for their school systems.

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education released the preliminary allocations, with most districts receiving close to $1 million at a minimum. Many of those are slated to receive tens of millions of federal dollars to assist with an array of operating costs.

The Little Rock School District is scheduled to receive $64.3 million -- an amount that is roughly equal to 20% of the district's annual budget -- as the result of the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March.

The Springdale School District, the state's largest system in terms of enrollment, is to receive $40 million. The North Little Rock School District is on the list for $32 million. The West Memphis School District has been allocated nearly $27.4 million.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The Pulaski County Special School District is to receive almost $25.4 million, or more than $2,100 per student in the 12,000-student district.

"We are probably like everybody -- we didn't expect quite that much coming in," Charles McNulty, the Pulaski County Special district superintendent, said Wednesday. "And we're probably like every district in Arkansas. There are a lot of needs to be met in instruction, facilities and the general infrastructure of our school district."

"We'll be spending the next probably two or three months working with our schools, our communities and the School Board to prioritize the needs initially and then how we can utilize the funds to come out of a pandemic stronger than ever."

Even before the allocations to the districts were announced this week, Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key said he anticipated that the money must be earmarked for addressing the learning loss students experienced as the result of the covid-19 pandemic that closed schools for a quarter of last school year and disrupted instruction in the current year.

"This is a huge amount of money," Key has said about the newest funding. "We want to help districts spend it in the wisest possible way that is going to get them the biggest bang for the buck and best impact for their students."

Key pointed to the state's newly announced initiative to help districts acquire and use high quality instructional materials as a way to use the money.

[DOCUMENT: Preliminary allocations » arkansasonline.com/48relief/]

He also suggested that districts may be able to use the special federal funding to offset anticipated loss of state funding in the 2021-22 school year -- the result of declines in student enrollment that many districts experienced. State funding for a school district is based largely on the previous year's student enrollment.

The American Rescue Plan is providing $1.9 trillion nationally for covid-19 relief, including $1.2 billion for Arkansas education. The funding comes in addition to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act funding of $13.2 billion enacted in March 2020 -- of which Arkansas schools received $128.7 million for transportation, student support/continuous learning, technology and systemic procedures.

The second round of federal covid relief funding in December 2020 meant $54.3 billion for the nation's schools, including more than $500 million for Arkansas education. Improvement to facilities, including to indoor ventilation systems, was added to the eligible categories for expending that money.

Student support can be mentoring and tutoring or helping students to achieve industry-recognized credentials. Technology can include purchase of computer hardware, software and internet connectivity. Systemic procedures are defined as actions and other ways to contribute to healthy conditions in a school -- including pay for employee leave and substitute costs.

The most recent round of funding, in particular, requires that at least 20% of the funds address learning loss through summer and extended day or extended year instructional programs.

The Pulaski County Special district received about $2.3 million in the first round of funding and about $11.2 million in the second round, McNulty said.

The first $2.3 million "went fast," he said about the district's early efforts to provide personal protection equipment, an online instructional platform and otherwise equip schools, staff and students for the start of this current 2020-21 school year.

The district has a little more time for expending second and third rounds of money.

"The third round is really about rebounding from the pandemic and providing the best education that our students deserve," he said, adding that he sees the district expanding instructional initiatives. That is likely to include reconfiguring middle school scheduling into college-style block scheduling, as well as enhancing literacy and math instruction.

"We want to see a STEM initiative take off," McNulty said about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, "and not just in the school day. We want to see coding and robotics and some other extracurricular education opportunities start up and be expanded next year. We want to take our successes and go to the next level."

Ivy Pfeffer, deputy commissioner in the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an email Wednesday that districts and charter schools can spend the new money "on many activities that are not allowable under other federal programs like Title I and IDEA."

Title I money is restricted to schools with high percentages of low income students and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act money targets special-needs students.

The covid-19 relief money, frequently referred to as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief aid or ESSER I, II and III money, "can benefit all students and schools or be targeted to select students and schools, depending on local needs.

"We encourage [districts} to think strategically about their needs and choose high-impact strategies," Pfeffer said.

"ESSER local funds may be used to assist with continuity of operations or with budgetary shortfalls resulting from the pandemic," she also said.

Districts and charter systems with low student enrollment, unpredictable changes in school enrollment, or that have experienced considerable loss of financial resources "may determine to use ESSER funds to continue operations or to assist with budget shortfalls resulting from the pandemic. ESSER funds may be reserved until student enrollment stabilizes and used to bridge future budget shortfalls if the deficit is related to the coronavirus and the ESSER funds are needed for education-related expenses.

"The flexibility provided by ESSER guidance provides a level of fiscal certainty to districts in order to respond to short and longer-term effects from covid-19," Pfeffer said.

The state agency has distributed to the state's districts and charter systems guidance that advises districts to show how their expenditures of federal money are necessary, reasonable and, while used broadly, connected directly to covid-19.

The funds can't be used in general for employee salaries unless the expenditures for personnel are related to virus disruptions, the state guidance says.

"This does not mean all bonuses, merit pay, or similar expenditures are unallowable, only those unrelated to covid-related disruptions or closures," the Arkansas agency has advised districts.

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