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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS Deciding How To Spend $731 Million In Federal COVID Relief

 Students at Milwaukee German Immersion School
Emily Files
Students at Milwaukee German Immersion School on MPS's first day returning to in-person learning.

Milwaukee Public Schools is starting to determine to how it will spend $731 million in federal stimulus aid over the next three years. It’s a big chunk of change to add to MPS’s $1.3 billion annual budget.

The MPS board is making decisions about some of the federal funding as part of its regular budgeting process for the upcoming school year.

The COVID relief funding is being distributed to schools in three waves. The first allocation, called ESSER I, was from the CARES Act, which Congress approved in the early months of the pandemic. MPS has been using the $41 million this school year for pandemic-related costs like computers for students and PPE.

The next two waves of funding, known as ESSER II and ESSER III, are larger — totaling $731 million, according to MPS. The reason MPS is receiving such a large amount is because the allocation is based on the number of students living in poverty in each school district.

A table in MPS's budget proposal showing the three federal COVID relief allocations.
A table in MPS's budget proposal showing the three federal COVID relief allocations.

MPS is first figuring out how to spend the $225 million in ESSER II money.

The administration has a wish list of recommendations, including about $200 million in facility upgrades that involve widespread air quality and ventilation projects, replacing water fountains with bottle filling stations and creating outdoor classrooms.

Another large chunk of the money, about $50 million, would go toward new curriculum. And, about $20 million would pay for extended learning opportunities like tutoring and summer school.

The recommendations add up to more than $225 million, so the school board will have to pare down the list or push some of the proposals to the ESSER III spending plan.

MPS Chief Financial Officer Martha Kreitzman says the district should not use ESSER money to hire a lot of new staff.

"This money is limited to three years and then it’ll be gone, and we have to be able to afford the staffing," Kreitzman says. "So the decision was made, and as we talk to other schools districts, it’s been kind of advised, you know, don’t add a lot of staff."

Because of the temporary nature of the money, MPS administrators are recommending much of it be used on facility upgrades, materials, professional development and contracted services.

The school board didn’t delve much into the proposals at its Thursday meeting. But members did say they want to get more public input.

MPS Superintendent Keith Posley says there will be more public involvement when the district decides how to spend the $506 million in ESSER III money.

"The ESSER III piece will be coming back in June," Posley says. "That’s a more in-depth process that we have to go through."

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesperson Chris Bucher says the U.S. Department of Education requires "the state will ensure local education agencies engage in meaningful consultation with stakeholders ... in planning for the use of [ESSER III] funds."

As MPS plans its budget for next school year, one big unknown is enrollment. This year, MPS lost 1,500 students in pre-K and kindergarten, presumably because families didn’t want young children learning virtually.

Read: Kindergarten Enrollment Plummets In Wisconsin Amid Pandemic

Posley says the district is planning as if those students will come back. "Our numbers at the kindergarten through first grade levels were low," he says. "When we’re full in-person, those students will be back there. But the idea if they don’t return, we will have some shortfalls."

MPS was virtual for most of this school year. Board members urge Posley and his team to tell families what level of in-person learning they can expect next school year as soon as possible.

The next budget hearing is scheduled for May 18.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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