By Mary Beth Rogers, ED. S, CFO, MSBO President-Elect, Executive Director of Business Services, Clarkston Community Schools
In September, at the 2022 ASBO International Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon, the session that stood out to me was “Surviving the Coming ESSER Cliff” – but the Thelma and Louise approach just won’t cut it. I wasn’t the only business official that felt that way. It was clear that every district in the United States is trying to navigate how to survive. How to survive on-going costs with one-time funds. We as business officials in Michigan are not alone in this struggle.
I also find it interesting that, nationally and in Michigan, districts’ ESSER spending patterns have followed the COVID pandemic timelines. ESSER I funds have been primarily spent on purchasing PPE equipment and supplies to keep students and staff safe. These funds have also been spent on purchasing technology and services to implement, develop and improve staff’s ability to instruct and students ability to learn in a remote learning environment. They were also used to coordinate with local health authorities to protect community health and safety, and to implement their requirements, which can include additional labor costs.
ESSER II expenditure trends pivoted to prioritize more resources to address students’ academic needs while working to safely reopen schools. Districts invested ESSER II funds to continue to support remote, hybrid and improve in-person learning programs. ESSER II funds have also been spent on expanding summer, after-school, and tutoring programs to address student academic regression and recovery needs. Again, like ESSER I funds, this can include additional labor costs. ESSER III funds applications and spending are trending towards being more invested in labor-intensive, targeted programs and services to address a wide range of student learning loss, social-emotional, mental, and behavioral needs, particularly for sub group student populations.
The learning loss issues will continue and the staff we added using ESSER funds will need to be maintained for the betterment of our youth. However, school districts will have tough decisions to make, and programs may need to be cut. How creative are we going to need to be to keep all the school improvement staff we added with ESSER funds?
The ability to sustain learning loss strategies is just one of the many challenges districts will continue to face. With loss of these one-time fundings, using state and local resources to fund these costs, districts will be expected to navigate a competitive labor market, labor shortages, inflationary costs, union demands for costly salary increases, safety and security needs and continue to provide and expand mental health services. Our next 3–5-year budget projections, without the one-time ESSER funds that have significantly inflated our fund balances, will most likely reflect deficit spending, creative revenue enhancements and potentially deep reductions. Of these reductions, what will become sacred cows? What will we be willing to sacrifice? What will have the least impact on public education and our youth? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves.
This is a local, state, and national concern. This will require local, state and national collaboration. In a recent ASBO ESSER Spending survey, respondents addressed some of the challenges of ESSER funding that included, “Sustainability Issues (spending responsibly to avert a fiscal cliff), Balancing Competing Priorities (spending quickly vs. strategically to support students), Labor Issues (unable to hire or retain staff to implement programs/initiatives), Supply Chain Issues (product shortages, shipping delays, rising costs, etc.), and Spend Timeline Issues (unable to complete larger projects in time, e.g., construction).”
ESSER spending does show a national trend of spending funds that are in-line with the pandemic timeline. However, it also shows a trend in each phase of adding additional on-going labor costs with one-time ESSER funding. Continuing these additional services that districts have added is still needed, but where will the revenue come from to sustain these much-needed resources for our students. How will we survive the Cliff? It’s a huge challenge, but we are not alone.
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