Michigan schools facing spending deadline for federal COVID dollars

Districts must program remaining aid by Sept. 2024
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Posted at 2:31 PM, Mar 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-04 14:31:28-05

Michigan traditional and charter public schools are facing a looming deadline to spend federal COVID aid. They have until September 2024 to program what’s left of the nearly $6 billion in one-time emergency funding.

A January report from Citizens Research Council shows districts still need to program some $3.5 billion.

“There’s really a question about the ability to spend these resources within an 18 month period but also how effective districts are going to be in spending those resources given that time crunch,” said Craig Thiel with Citizens Research Council of Michigan, which has tracked how districts have spent this money since early 2020.

Unlike federal school aid during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, this time the federal government used a formula to funnel the most dollars into districts with high populations of lower income households, something Thiel told Action News makes sense but has also left some districts in our state with little federal support.

“Some districts got $20-$30,000 per kid to spend and some got a couple thousand dollars,” he said.

Citizens Research Council reports 95 of Michigan’s more than 800 school districts account for $2.3 billion of the total $3.5 billion in unspent federal aid. Data shows that in the metro Detroit area, districts like Detroit Public Schools Community District, Pontiac Schools, and Hamtramck Schools have large amounts of unspent federal aid, in some cases surpassing the $9,150 districts receive per student each year from the state.

“We were very appreciate to receive the COVID relief funding,” said DPSCD superintendent, Dr. Nikolai Vitti. “It definitely minimized the high degree of disruption that we saw during the pandemic,” he said, noting federal dollars helped DPSCD buy computers for virtual learning, provided connectivity help, and early on in the pandemic purchased PPE and COVID testing.

“For the first time in 20 years I actually felt we were equitably funded,” he said.

The district avoided layoffs during the pandemic despite drops in enrollment, due to the federal funds. The money also helped DPSCD expand mental health support for students, it provided a contracted nurse in each school, upgraded HVAC systems, and invested in longterm facility upgrades.

“We were very practical and realistic, that this was one time money,” he said. He’s confident the district’s adjustments after the spending deadline hits in 2024 won’t negatively impact student achievement.

For DPSCD parent Aliya Moore, there’s concern over which federally funded programs might be cut once the money runs out.

Her daughter’s after school debate program at Paul Robeson Malcom X Academy is funding with federal COVID dollars.

“She’s just now starting to get into it,” Moore said, dreading the idea it might be cut.

Dr. Vitti told Action News any academic specific after school program such as tutoring, will remain in place. As will mental health support for students.

.”..overall academic support would be provided after school at all schools,” even after September 2024, he said.

DPSCD is expected to receive $1.2 billion in one-time ESSER funds from the federal government. $500 million will address pandemic learning loss, and $700 million will fund one time capital improvement projects like facility upgrades and new buildings.

Paul Robeson Malcom X Academy, where Moore's daughter attends, is slated to get a new building.

“Districts should be asking you know, what’s working and what’s not working,” Thiel said, when it comes to deciding which programs might need to be scaled back.

Citizens Research Council is recommending state legislators consider using the state budget surplus to fill in the gaps for districts where federal dollars didn’t flow as much.

While DPSCD was able to avoid layoffs during the pandemic, because some positions were funded with federal money, staff cuts are now a reality.

“We’re looking at maybe 100 central office employees and school based administrators when you combine the two,” Dr. Vitti said.

That includes positions like deans and assistant principals, which does worry Moore, who was at the last school board meeting where federal COVID aid was discussed.

She said some of her questions were answered, but not all of them.

“It’s just a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty as a parent,” Moore said.

She’s pushing for the district to find a way to not only keep her daughter’s debate program, but also an after-school leadership program.

“It’s just the programs that give them the outlet outside of the academics that I’m worried about,” she said.