Boston Public Schools has been awarded $431 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds since the arrival of COVID-19, doled out in three payouts. The third and largest segment, $276 million, must be spent by September 2024, although the federal government may grant extensions for projects that are contracted by the deadline.
As of June 7, Boston schools had claimed just 20 percent of its total funds. Here’s a rundown of what has been spent so far, what’s to come, and why spending has lagged.
Where is the money going?
Aside from the first round of funding — CARES Act funds which Boston spent quickly on direct pandemic response — the district allocated roughly half its money to district-wide initiatives and 40 percent to individual schools, with the remaining 10 percent split among administrative costs, additional COVID-19 mitigation costs, and future investments in multi-school initiatives and community partnerships.
With community input, the district chose seven focus areas for the $400 million in school funds: core teaching; including special-needs students in general education classrooms; teaching English learners in their native languages; college and career pathways; equity; engagement; and facilities.
Each focus area includes multiple investments, ranging in cost from less than $250,000 to more than $25 million. But five projects combine for $78 million.
How was the school-level funding allocated, and what do school leaders plan to do with it?
To distribute $50 million per year to schools, the district opted for a simple formula. For each English learner, low-income student, and student with disabilities enrolled each year, a school will get $813. If a student falls into multiple categories, they are counted multiple times and the school gets more money.
Allocations last year ranged from $51,249 — the tiny Carter School for students with severe disabilities — to over $1.3 million at two of the high schools.
Based on tentative March enrollment projections, the same 10 schools receiving the most money this year will receive the most next year: Madison Park, East Boston and Charlestown high schools, Orchard Gardens K-8 and O’Bryant School of Math and Science (which all received more than $1 million) plus the McKay K-8 School, TechBoston, Umana Academy K-8, Murphy K-8, and Curley K-8.
The schools getting the most money sought to invest in professional development for inclusion and multilingual learning, expanding holiday break and after-school enrichment opportunities, upgrading curriculums, and providing more social-emotional supports. Specific investments include additional staff and, at East Boston High School, an updated weight room to help students meet MassCore graduation requirements.
Schools had to name desired long-term impacts for their plans. More than half of the district’s schools sought to improve English language arts achievement with their funds. Roughly a third targeted math achievement and core academics more generally.
Marguerite Roza, the director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, tracks nationwide spending of the federal money, and said Boston’s school-level allocation made sense because it helps resolve conflicting priorities between schools.
“We think that’s promising,” Roza said. “A lot of districts can’t get agreement across the board to do anything.”
Currently, school leaders are reviewing their first year of spending and the district is examining the success of the first year and the proposals for spending for next year, said Serena La Rocque, the district official overseeing school-level ESSER spending.
“Across the three years there are moments to stop and pause on reflecting on what has worked, what hasn’t, what is the data telling you?” La Rocque said.
District leaders expect the next round of funds to be turned over to schools on Sept. 1, the first day of the federal fiscal year. Any money that wasn’t spent this year will carry over to next year.
What has been spent so far — and what hasn’t?
District estimates in June put Boston schools behind schedule for 2021-2022, with about $64 million spent so far out of $107 million in planned district and school-level spending. That number will rise to over a quarter of the district’s funds by the end of the summer — which is also the end of the federal fiscal year — and it means the district will have to accelerate spending to use it all in time.
District officials are not worried. David Bloom, deputy chief financial officer, said there is no risk of running out of time.
“Come this fall, we’re going to see probably the highest spending rates in this upcoming year as schools are fully re-engaging post-pandemic,” Bloom said. “The money will get spent.”
Officials attributed the slow start to supply chain issues, labor shortages, and required community engagement, which takes time.
For example, air conditioning purchases have lagged the planned $10 million in spending this year. Labor shortages, particularly by the time schools had their plans in place, made it difficult to hire staff, leading some schools to postpone recruitment altogether.
District leaders expect spending to go more smoothly this year.
What happens when the money runs out?
The expiration date on the federal funds looms large: While some of the money is going to one-time purchases like air conditioners, the district planned to hire hundreds of people using ESSER funds.
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. Already, 11 staff positions have been shifted to the operational budget, a district official said. School plans had to include plans for either sustaining or phasing out any ongoing initiatives in fall 2024.
Temporary investments include staff hired for recovery initiatives which will be phased out at the end of the grant. Over the next two years, the district will monitor investments to identify which are working particularly well — and then find funding to continue those.
The Great Divide explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit. Adria Watson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.