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OPINION

Boston Public Schools are getting more than $400 million in stimulus dollars — how should the money be spent?

With a return to full-time in-person instruction on April 26, how well prepared is the district to do the more difficult work that lies ahead? And where exactly is all that money going?

It’s a huge challenge for the public schools to effectively spend these new federal dollars, which amount to about one-third of BPS’s annual budget. That comes down to an astonishing $9,500 extra per student, with few strings attached.
It’s a huge challenge for the public schools to effectively spend these new federal dollars, which amount to about one-third of BPS’s annual budget. That comes down to an astonishing $9,500 extra per student, with few strings attached.Globe staff illustration; david_franklin/BENEJAM/Adobe

The burning question in Boston education circles right now is: What are the Boston Public Schools going to do with the few hundred million the district is slated to receive in federal stimulus dollars? Estimates put BPS’s total share of the rescue packages in the $430 million to $460 million range, an enormous one-time infusion. That includes some $280 million from the recently passed American Rescue Plan alone.

Parents, principals, and teachers have every right to wonder: With a return to full-time in-person instruction on April 26, how well prepared is the district to do the more difficult work that lies ahead? And where exactly is all that money going?

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It’s a huge challenge for the public schools to effectively spend these new federal dollars, which amount to about one-third of BPS’s annual budget. That comes down to an astonishing $9,500 extra per student, with few strings attached.

“It’s as if someone in your house suddenly got a 33 percent raise,” said Will Austin, chief executive officer of Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit that raises money to increase access to high-quality schools in the city. Austin and his team crunched the numbers and released a detailed analysis of BPS’s federal aid. “It’s nearly half a billion dollars that come with a lot of flexibility,” he said. “But there’s practically no oversight on it.”

Nor is there any playbook for spending such a large windfall. Many students have fallen behind during the coronavirus pandemic, and there will clearly need to be a focus on remediation. And there’s pressure to spend the funds quickly: There are different timelines for stimulus funding, but the first deadline is the school year that begins in September 2022. Granted, the majority of the federal money hasn’t been disbursed, but BPS said it already has received $33 million from the first coronavirus relief package passed a year ago and an additional $20 million from the city through its relief funds.

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BPS’s budget for next year includes an increase of $36 million, a moderate boost that brings per-student spending from $22,000 to $23,500. BPS has invested at least $12 million in reopening costs. That includes hiring 20 additional custodians so classrooms and buildings can be properly cleaned; crews to sanitize buses; and ventilation upgrades (including $7.6 million on window repairs, which was paid with the federal relief funds, according to the district) and testing to ensure air quality to combat airborne germs. From the stimulus money, the district has said it plans to spend $5 million to support students with disabilities and $2.5 million on English-language learners (for instance, offering additional individualized academic help to these two high-needs populations) as well as $4.5 million on extra tutoring and vacation and summer programming.

In an interview, BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius said she wants educators and families to know that the stimulus money “will not be used for the adults. This money is going to the students.” Cassellius said she plans to release how the rest of the money will be spent in the next month or two.

Dividing up the rest of the money will be a crash course in Boston education politics for Cassellius, who can expect intense campaigning for funds in a system with abundant needs and severe inequity. At least the superintendent seems clear on the short-term nature of the funds. “At the end of the day, after three years, we better have something to show for this money, and it better have a terrific impact for our children and their families,” Cassellius told me.

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There are smart ways to spend the money on recovery. (And please BPS, do not outsource solving the problem to consultants.) The most obvious are: high-dosage tutoring, or tutoring one or a very small group of students at least three times a week, which has produced impressive results; or acceleration academies, which is intensive and targeted instruction in certain subjects during school breaks. It’ll be key to leverage nonprofit partnerships for those recovery initiatives, rather than baking in recurring costs.

And by the way, if nearly half a billion wasn’t enough for a once-in-a-generation cash infusion for the Boston schools, there may be additional dollars that the district can expect to tap into in the coming years. First, the implementation of the Student Opportunity Act, which updates how the state doles out education funding to districts, is pending. Plus, the city of Boston is also getting its own $570 million share from the American Rescue Plan, and some of it could be spent on public education.

The once-in-a-lifetime windfall is a good problem for the schools to have. But it will be a tricky one, and best solved by focusing on those in most need of rescue.

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Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.