Schools can seek more time to spend ESSER funds on outside contracts

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Schools may have more than a year longer than expected to finish spending federal pandemic relief funds on contracts for construction, mental health, tutoring and other third-party services, the U.S. Department said Tuesday. education.

Districts will be able to request an additional 14 months beyond the previously agreed-upon deadline to spend a portion of the $200 billion K-12 schools secured on three rounds of federal pandemic relief assistance, according to the timeline outlined in a letter. . the department sent last Friday to the AASA, the association of school superintendents.

This letter was specifically in response to advocates for school districts seeking more time to devote relief funds to infrastructure projects. Many media outlets and advocacy groups had since reported that the possibility of extension would only apply to construction contracts, and only for the third round of federal aid, known as ESSER III.

In fact, districts will be able to apply to extend the spending deadline for all contracts and for all three rounds of aid, Luke Jackson, a department spokesperson, confirmed to Education Week in an email Tuesday.

Schools have until September to “commit” funds, or commit them for specific purposes, from the first round of federal COVID relief, known as ESSER I. The deadline to commit the second fund cycle, ESSER II, is September 2023, and for ESSER III is September 2024.

Previously, schools were under the impression that they would have four months from these deadlines to “liquidate” or spend the funds. The Department of Education’s May 13 clarification on that timeline cites arcane federal regulations that had been ignored by most district leaders.

Districts are yet to commit ESSER I funds by September 2022, ESSER II funds by September 2023, and ESSER III funds by September 2024. But if they hire a contractor before the deadline, they can get 18 months after those dates instead of four to pay the contractor – if their state Department of Education obtains a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education on their behalf, Roberto Rodríguez, Assistant Secretary of the Department for planning, evaluation and policy development, AASA wrote on Friday.

Worried about running out of money before the job is done

School district leaders and their advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm for months that they might not be able to complete vital construction projects like repairing a roof or replacing an HVAC system before the federal support that made them possible runs out.

Skyrocketing Material Costs and Persistent Supply Shortages have led many districts to reduce their investments in facilities or to wait until market conditions improve.

A coalition of school and health advocacy groups sent a letter in January asking the department for more flexibility. With Friday’s response and Tuesday’s clarification, they got it, and more.

“The Department understands the need for schools to address urgent and time-sensitive projects, including school infrastructure projects, intended to protect the health and safety of students, educators and staff during this pandemic,” it read. in Rodríguez’s May 13 letter.

District attorneys applauded the news.

“The needs of these children will not disappear from the 24-25 school year,” said Sasha Pudelski, Advocacy Director for AASA. Districts “could make decisions about how they’re going to reallocate their money if they know they’ll be able to extend these professionals for more than two years.”

The department said it will later share details about how school districts can request to extend the spending schedule and how it will consider requests from state education departments.

Lee Ann Wetzel, superintendent of the Ridley District in suburban Philadelphia, may be among the candidates for an extension of the deadline. She is working with an installations team on a $3 million project to quickly replace a failing HVAC system in the district’s 20-year-old high school building.

“The new building doesn’t hold up like the century-old building in my district,” Wetzel said. One section of its HVAC system in particular is “on its last legs.”

The geothermal building has tricky specifications that will take time from construction teams. Wetzel hopes the project can be finished by September 2024, but if not, “the extension gives us some relief that we should be good” to finish paying the contractor past the deadline. duty, she said.

Some critics of schools’ pandemic recovery efforts might be reluctant to give schools more time. The department continues to urge districts to spend ESSER funds as quickly as possible.

Schools have also signed contracts with third-party vendors to spend ESSER funds on tutoring, mental health support, educational materials, professional development, technology tools, and even substitute teachers.

Pudelski anticipates that many districts that have developed good relationships with third-party mental health providers will advocate for them to continue using ESSER dollars beyond the original deadline.

The clarified guidelines “could be a game-changer,” she said.

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