Dr. Clint Schutte sat down with First American’s Taylor Hastrich to discuss best use cases for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding and how they will impact the district’s purchasing strategies this year and in the future.
Taylor: Clint, thank you for joining us today! You have been my go-to expert on ESSER funding questions over the past year. How do you stay up to date on the most current information regarding the disbursement of these funds and how they can be used to best serve your district?
Clint: Sure, there is a dedicated website that I go to where our state has published all the necessary information that outlines the requirements for each round of funding. This varies state by state and continues to expand with each round of funding, but the categories that the funds can be used for are overall pretty broad. Essentially, the funds are meant to be used for spending on facilities, activities, equipment, etc. that schools have invested in or implemented as a result of COVID-19.
The second round of funding expanded those categories to include facility upgrades, new cleaning procedures, new COVID-19 staff training, addressing learning loss, improving student engagement, purchasing educational technology for students; the list goes on. The main purpose of these funds is to get students back in school and accelerate their learning, mitigating potential challenges from the pandemic.
Taylor: Interesting. It sounds like these funds can be applied to a variety of different areas. Is there anything that ESSER funding cannot be used for?
Clint: There are limitations similar to what we see when using federal funding. You cannot pay for things that are already built into the district’s budget. You must specifically show how the funds were used in response to the pandemic. So, for example, USD 261 (Haysville) chose to use some of our ESSER funding towards a new technology lease for middle school devices. This was allowed because we did not already have a 1:1 program in place for our middle school students and we needed to transition them to all remote learning as a clear response to COVID-19. If we had already had a technology lease in place for our middle school chromebooks prior to the pandemic, we would not have been able to put the ESSER funding towards the new lease payments.
Taylor: I’m glad you were able to use some of your funding towards a new technology lease! Do you have any other examples of best use cases that you think are worth sharing?
Clint: There really are so many areas where districts can use these funds; it’s pretty remarkable. For example, rooftop HVAC units qualify under school facility repairs or improvements that help reduce the risk of virus transmission. Now, for this to qualify, I must show how the replacement units will be better at filtering out contaminants and prove that they will improve overall air quality. Luckily, manufacturers are already writing up policies to help comply with these rules to demonstrate how the new units and equipment will reduce the potential spread of the virus, which is a perfect use for ESSER funding.
A few other examples I’ve seen are districts hiring temporary social workers to track down the increase in missing students, security for new software programs, or investing in digital infrastructure to enhance remote learning.
Taylor: That’s great to hear. Shifting gears a little bit here, but what is the timeline around receiving ESSER funds?
Clint: Each of the rounds of funding are being treated slightly differently, but many states have until 2023 to use their dedicated funds. For example, regarding the ESSER 2 funding, you must submit a proposed plan to the State of Kansas for how you plan to distribute those funds. Once it’s approved and we start making purchases, we will get reimbursed by the state.
The tough part is if you invest in something that is extremely crucial now, for example hiring an additional five teachers to improve instruction, it will cost you half a million dollars or more each year. By the third year, that money is gone, and then you either have to have increased revenue to keep them or you have to fire five teachers. After September 2023, you no longer have the funds to pay those salaries unless you work it into your budget another way. Districts have to be very careful with what they choose to allocate their funds towards, especially if it’s continuous expenditures.
Taylor: That brings up an interesting point. Obviously in the short term, these funds are extremely helpful to help combat the effects of the pandemic. However, are you worried that there will be long term challenges districts will face as a result of receiving these funds? What are you doing at your district to help mitigate those risks?
Clint: This is one of the reasons why you and your team at First American are so great, and why we find technology leasing to be extremely beneficial at Haysville. I have shared this strategy with other business managers in surrounding districts because there are some schools who used their first round of ESSER funds to purchase large amounts of chromebooks. Unfortunately, those districts will face challenges three or four years from now when the devices become obsolete or damaged. This is a prime example of what I mean when we talk about districts being extra careful with these funds. It is great that we can use them for so many different things, but we have to challenge ourselves to think strategically and long-term.
Taylor: Can you share a little more about your plan for technology devices over the next few years?
Clint: The plan for our student 1:1 program is to implement a series of Fair Market Value leases for the devices to be used for remote learning initiatives, ensuring sustainability of the program over time. That is what makes the most sense for us; we can work the cost of the lease payments into our financial plans by building $100,000 each year into our budget so that we have a continued known cost for our technology program.
This is where First American’s financing offerings comes into play and helps districts spread out those costs over the lift of the asset. Fortunately, time is always in the favor of school districts. If we can spread our payments out over time, it is easier for us to adjust our budgets for larger purchases to guarantee the greatest benefit for our schools. In response to the pandemic, we have to look at how we plan to sustain our actions or decide if it is just a temporary solution or it we must fit it into our future budget and plans.
Taylor: Your perspective and all these examples are so helpful for me to learn and be able to share with our clients. Thank you for taking the time to sit down and walk through this topic with me today!
Clint: My pleasure, anytime. I am always happy to share how Haysville looks at our budgeting and strategic plans, and where you and your team fit into that process. Thank you for all your help throughout the pandemic, as well.
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