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THE GREAT DIVIDE

How have Massachusetts school districts spent their $2.5 billion in federal COVID funds? Mostly, they still haven’t.

Atlantis Charter School is using its federal coronavirus relief funds to build an annex at its campus in Fall River. It's expected to be ready for next school year.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Rich or poor, there has long been at least one constant among school districts in Massachusetts: They all say they need more money to fulfill their education needs.

But despite an influx of more than $2.5 billion in coronavirus aid funds over the past two-plus years, most of the bigger school districts in the state have been slow to put that money to work. The reasons range from drawn-out community engagement processes to the same economic forces that have bedeviled private businesses during the pandemic, including labor shortages and supply chain problems.

Among the 78 Massachusetts districts and independent charter schools that have received over $5 million, the Atlantis Charter School in Fall River stands alone as the one to have spent more than 90 percent. Only five others have spent even half.

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The money comes from three tranches included in the March 2020 CARES Act, a supplemental relief bill in December 2020, and the March 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. The third and largest segment must be spent by September 2024 — although the federal government may grant extensions for projects that are contracted by the deadline.

With just over two years remaining to use that money, Massachusetts districts have spent about $737 million, or 28.6 percent, according to state data on reimbursed spending as of June 7. The biggest districts in the state have spent even less — about 20 percent in Boston and Springfield and 25 percent in Worcester. These figures do not include unreimbursed spending or spending since June 7.

Boston spent about $44 million out of $57 million in planned district-level projects this year, said Shira Decovnick, BPS acting director of state and federal accountability. The district also turned a big piece of its funds — $50 million this year — to individual schools. Just $20 million of that has been spent.

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With summer programming and stipends, those numbers will increase before Aug. 31, the end of the federal fiscal year, but recruitment, in particular, has held up both district and school spending.

“It’s actually a very challenging time to hire in education,” Decovnick said. “That not only meant that we spent less on salary than we anticipated, but not all of those programs moved forward as fast and as far as we would have anticipated.”

Similar difficulties have plagued large districts across the country, said Marguerite Roza, the director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. Roza tracks the spending of the federal money, known as ESSER aid, in the majority of states and found most districts have spent little from the third round. Boston, at 11 percent spent, is far ahead of many of the nation’s biggest districts — Chicago had spent just 6.5 percent of its $1.8 billion allocation as of June 22.

District officials across the state, including in Boston, expect spending to ramp up shortly, beginning with programming this summer and continuing with hiring, facilities work, and other purchases ahead of the 2022-2023 school year.

Worcester Public Schools, for example, planned to spend $16.5 million on buses this year. Due to manufacturing delays, that purchase won’t happen until next year, according to Brian Allen, the chief financial and operations officer. Most of $23 million in planned ventilation system upgrades are scheduled for the next two years, as well.

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If those major purchases come through, the district will spend over $50 million in federal funds next year, over 40 percent of its total allocation.

Boston leaders have similar expectations, said David Bloom, the district’s deputy chief financial officer.

“We really do think we’re accelerating the pace of spending pretty rapidly,” Bloom said. “Come this fall we’re going to see probably the highest spending rates . . . as schools are fully reengaging post-pandemic.”

Still, some districts were able to move faster. Woburn Public Schools, for example, already spent nearly two-thirds of its $7 million in federal funds, a feat its assistant superintendent of finance and operations, Robert Alconada, attributed to applying the funds to preexisting plans.

“Our Superintendent Matthew Crowley has always had a vision for the district for where he wanted to take it,” Alconada said. “Because of the ESSER funds, we were able to accelerate some of those plans.”

The spending in Woburn has mostly been directed toward student learning, Alconada said, including an open-enrollment summer program last year, hiring temporary “interventionists” to provide tutoring and small group instruction for literacy and elementary level math, adding more special education paraprofessionals, and a major curriculum upgrade.

At Atlantis Charter School, the money has gone almost exclusively to a single-story annex building going up across the parking lot. The modular construction project, built to enable more individual and small group instruction, is expected to be ready in the fall.

Between the construction and technology purchases, mental health supports, and COVID-19 related staffing (like additional substitute teachers), the district has already spent 96 percent of its $5.16 million in funds, according to state data.

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Some districts were even able to staff up quickly with coronavirus funds. Falmouth’s funds have gone exclusively to temporary staffing, finance and operations director Patrick Murphy said, and the district has already gone through 84 percent of its $5.37 million. That decision has its critics, however: School Committee members have complained that those extra teachers and support staff will not remain with the district when the money runs out.

That fiscal cliff is a common concern, and one particularly looming in Boston. While some of the district’s plans are for one-time purchases with the funds, including $25.8 million in air conditioning and air quality improvements, others would pay for over 100 full-time positions.

Bree Dusseault, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, has tracked the ESSER planning processes in the 100 largest public school districts and said districts can address the financial cliff by investing in long-term strategic plans.

“You want to be on the lookout for districts overinvesting in positions that will not be tenable down the road,” Dusseault said.

To avoid that financial dropoff, Boston leaders prioritized temporary academic programs with a long-term impact and making investments that could fit in the annual operational budget once recovery funds run out, according to a three-year plan released last week. .

Regardless of what districts plan to do when the money stops flowing, the important consideration is to make sure spending starts, Roza said, pointing to the achievement gaps when schools closed.

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The American Rescue Plan Act required that districts spend 20 percent of their funds on addressing pandemic learning loss, but Roza called for districts to go further.

“Look at your student outcomes,” Roza said. “If you haven’t made progress in your last year, change your plans. Do some forecasting to see if you will remedy these gaps, and bring that level of urgency to the planning that those gaps deserve.”

Adria Watson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.



Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.