By Casey Smith
Indiana Capital Chronicle
INDIANAPOLIS — With federal pandemic relief funds nearing expiration, Hoosier schools still have about $1 billion up for grabs.
The money still to be claimed is part of the more than $2.8 billion made available to Indiana schools through temporary federal funding, according to the Indiana Department of Education, IDOE.
Approved by Congress in 2020 and 2021, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER, programs are supposed to help schools districts manage financial hardships and make up for educational disruptions spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some ESSER funds expired last year. Of that, Indiana schools claimed $203 million, equal to about 99% of their available share, according to state data.
Another round of funds are set to expire this week. Hoosier schools have so far claimed 87% of those ESSER dollars, with around $106 million still remaining. IDOE officials said some applications have already been submitted and are still being processed, while other schools are continuing to apply for funds.
Schools must spend — or commit to spend — whatever other dollars they qualify for by the end of September 2024 — or one year’s time. Any money left unspent is returned to the federal government.
Since 2021, more than $1.8 billion of Indiana’s overall pandemic relief share has been issued out to school districts around the state.
Indiana’s education department manages the lump sum and is in charge of reimbursing K-12 school districts for qualified expenses.
Under federal requirements, ESSER dollars were distributed based on districts’ most recent Title I allocations — which meant schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families were prioritized. School systems with greater numbers of children from low-income families received more money.
The aid has few restrictions, meaning districts can decide how to use the dollars.
Federal rules indicate that at least 20% of all funds must be earmarked to address student learning loss, however. Additionally, 90% of Indiana’s ESSER allocation must flow directly to school districts. The remaining 10% is reserved for statewide programming.
State officials said much of the district-level spending has so far been on student instruction needs, as well as teacher recruitment and retention efforts.
Muncie Community Schools officials said most of the district’s $38.4-million dollar federal allocation is being spent on major renovations to elementary schools. The district plans to spend about $30 million on those projects and about $5 million on instruction.
To date, the district has another $6.8 million to use.
Earlier this year, Muncie schools separately received nearly a quarter-million dollars in statewide ESSER funding to expand work-based learning opportunities.
Across Fort Wayne Community Schools, spending on facilities improvements and student instruction has accounted for about $87.5 million of the district’s $158.4 million allotment.
That included renovations to two elementary schools to eliminate open-concept spaces and add new classrooms, in addition to window and HVAC replacements, asbestos- and mercury-containing floor removal and air filtering upgrades in other buildings. The district also used relief dollars to purchase books, online materials and other supplies to aid in learning loss efforts.
Fort Wayne schools can still claim about $40 million after this month.
The South Bend Community School Corporation received about $94.6 million in ESSER and GEER funds. The district’s spending plan prioritizes before- and after-school programs, as well as summer school, along with new curricular materials, updated school technology, stipends for staff and building upgrades. Roughly $45.7 million of the money that can be claimed by South Bend schools is still available, according to IDOE.
Hamilton Southeastern schools, north of Indianapolis, initially surveyed teachers, parents and students to help decide how the one-time money should be spent. Getting students back on track, academically, emerged as a key priority, district officials said.
Much of the district’s $3.3 million in federal funds claimed so far were used to hire extra teachers to target small group tutoring and additional lessons that take place outside regular school hours.
Spending Plans Still In Action
Dozens of school districts are still seeking reimbursement for expenses.
Of those with available funds, Indianapolis Public Schools, also known as IPS, still has the most to spend, according to IDOE’s federal aid dashboard. As of Aug. 28 — the latest data made available by the agency — IPS had $89.6 million for reimbursement. The district was allocated $217.3 million overall.
IDOE data suggests that nearly a quarter of IPS’ total allocation — about $50 million — has so far been used for student instruction needs. A separate IPS dashboard indicates priority spending on accelerated learning for language arts and math, as well as efforts to increase in-person attendance and out-of-school tutoring opportunities.
At least 11 Hoosier school districts have used the entire allocations. That includes the Randolph Southern and Tri-County school corporations.
Still, some districts have requested little to no reimbursements.
About 75 districts statewide still had 50% or more of their allocations available at the end of August. Some of those available funds will expire if not expensed by the next Sept. 30 deadline.
Many of those schools have spending plans in place, however, indicating what the remaining funds are earmarked for in the current and coming school years.
Herron Classical Schools in Indianapolis said it still plans to seek reimbursement for various capital projects, classroom instructional resources, and costs associated with newly-hired staff.
Shoals Community Schools will use its allocation for new Chromebooks, cafeteria supplies and social emotional counseling software.
The Hanover School Corporation also has spending plans for building improvements, substitute teacher wages, curriculum upgrades, new technology for students and professional development for educators.