Three Cowlitz County school districts are asking for more time to spend pandemic relief funds

Local school districts recently asked the U.S. Department of Education for more time to complete projects such as facility upgrades and expansion of mental health resources funded by federal pandemic relief funds.

Three of Washington State’s 40 school districts that have requested the expansion are in Cowlitz County: stone castle, Woodland and Lake Toutle.

In May, the U.S. Department of Education gave districts the option to apply for an 18-month extension spend emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools that have been adopted as part of federal COVID relief programs.

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Nearly 700 school districts across the country in July and again in August wrote a letter to the department saying they needed more time and guidance on how to use the money.

The letter detailed how continued cost inflation and supply chain issues had delayed construction projects. Schools are also struggling to recruit certified mental health professionals, the letter says.

Local schools

Ryan Greene, Superintendent of Castle Rock said using the funds can be tricky. Waiting for refunds from the government can make the process much longer than originally planned.

School districts have to pay up front for what they need, then go back and apply to get the money back.

“This extension gives you that extra safety net, in case projects don’t get completed on time,” Greene said.

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Current deadlines for relief packages are 2023, 2024 and 2025 for the final package, according to the US Department of Education.

Greene said the district was able to pass tax on capital projects which helped them move forward with their projects and focused on spending ESSER funds on facility upgrades, such as replacing roofs and HVAC systems.

Castle Rock is on track to complete some of its construction improvements by June ahead of the second ESSER deadline, he added.

The district received $2.66 million in ESSER funds and claimed $858,340.

Stacy Brown, Executive Director of Woodland Public Schools Business Servicessaid they channeled much of their funding into improving HVAC systems, hiring deans for each school, and hiring new elementary school counselors.

“We sat down with our administrators and came up with a list of what was important,” Brown said.

About 20% of one of the ESSER packages should be spent on addressing learning loss, she added. This means spending the funds on extended summer courses and after-school learning opportunities.

Woodland has been awarded $5.29 million in total and has so far claimed $1.47 million, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington. The deadlines for ESSER have not posed major challenges for the district, Brown said.

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Toutle Lake has also not encountered any problems or delays in spending the money, said Lynne Williams, district business manager.

The neighborhood was able spending the majority of its funds from the first package, she added.

Toutle Lake received a total of $953,846 in federal ESSER funds and spent $473,089, according to OSPI Data.

The district used funds for projects such as adding two new classrooms to reduce class sizes, new technology, summer schools and tutoring services, Williams said.

Most local districts have yet to claim their full share of emergency education funds. According to the data of the superintendent, Kelso School District claimed $8 million of his total award of $15.2 million. The Longview School District used $5.3 million of its $27.7 million allocation.

In total, districts in Washington state spent about half of the $2.6 billion given to them.

Sydney Brown is a reporter for the Daily News covering education and environmental issues in Cowlitz County.

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