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

Wisconsin pandemic aid plan hasn’t gotten federal approval, leaving some school districts in limbo

Emily Files
The Kettle Moraine School District in Waukesha County is one district where planning for federal relief has been delayed because its allocation has not gotten final approval from the federal government.

In May, Republicans in charge of Wisconsin’s Joint Committee on Finance voted to send $114 million in federal stimulus money only to public schools that were open in-person for most of last school year. They said it was a reward for districts that “did the right thing.”

Now, that provision is one factor holding up federal approval of Wisconsin’s plan for $1.5 billion in American Rescue Act Plan funding. That is delaying some school districts’ decisions on how they’ll spend money meant to catch kids up from the impacts of the pandemic.

The $1.5 billion coming to Wisconsin schools through the American Rescue Act is known as ESSER 3 (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief.) Ninety percent of ESSER 3 is distributed to schools through the Title 1 formula, which is based on the share of low-income students they serve.

The other 10% is left to the state to decide how to use — but is subject to federal approval. That’s where the Republicans on the joint finance committee left their mark by directing $114 million to in-person schools under Motion 57.

"The money that is subject to the joint finance committee oversight will be skewed toward those schools that are open in-person," said finance co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) in May. "It's important that we recognize and support those districts that have stayed open throughout the pandemic."

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Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein (right) and Rep. Mark Born (left) directed the state to distribute $114 million in federal aid to schools that were open more than 50% of the 2020-21 school year. Now that provision is one factor delaying federal approval of the funding.

During that meeting in May, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) questioned whether the federal government would allow it.

"The only certainty of this motion is the amount of uncertainty Republicans are creating," Erpenbach said.

Erpenbach was right — the in-person school provision is a sticking point delaying federal approval of the state’s ESSER 3 distribution plan.

In a letter to Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction, a Department of Education official raised equity concerns, saying the finance committee provisions exclude districts that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students, like Milwaukee and Racine.

Marguerite Roza is an education finance expert at Georgetown University who has been following the massive amount of federal pandemic money flowing to schools.

She said districts like Milwaukee and Racine are already well taken care of because 90% of ESSER 3 funds are distributed based on student poverty levels. For example, Milwaukee is expecting $504 million and Racine is expecting $53 million.

Roza said the other 10% of ESSER 3 funds — the portion at issue here — doesn’t even have to go to schools. It could go to nonprofits or other groups helping students recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

"Wisconsin is fighting over the 10% should go to which districts, when [some] other states didn’t give any of it to districts," Roza said. "For instance, Utah is doing a bunch with competitive grants and they’re inviting nonprofits to apply and do innovative things. So this idea, it’s bizarre to me. I mean the point of the 10% wasn’t for districts."

But the U.S. Department of Education, which declined an interview for this story, doesn’t seem to be backing down from its objection to the plan rewarding in-person districts.

And Wisconsin finance committee co-chair Rep. Mark Born isn’t backing down either. He blamed DPI for the delay.

"The finance committee did our job and passed this plan nearly six months ago," Born said in a statement. "Meanwhile, the Evers administration waited months to submit the plan to the federal government. If funding for in-person schools is being delayed, it certainly is not because the committee is holding it up."

DPI submitted its latest revision of the ESSER 3 plan on Nov. 22. Spokesman Chris Bucher said Monday the Department of Education had not responded yet.

What the delay means for schools

Some school districts that are receiving most of their federal stimulus funding through the Title 1 formula have proceeded with planning for ESSER 3.

Greendale Public Schools hired five additional instructional coaches this school year and plans to request those positions be reimbursed with ESSER 3 dollars, said Director of Business Services Jonathan Mitchell.

"We anticipate that funds will be approved and we'll be able to move forward with our plans," Mitchell said.

But the stalemate is leaving other districts in limbo — particularly those with more affluent populations that are receiving most of their ESSER 3 funding through the joint finance committee's motion.

John Stellmacher is the chief financial officer for Kettle Moraine School District in Waukesha County. Stellmacher thinks Kettle Moraine will get close to $3 million from ESSER 3 — most of it stemming from the in-person school provision.

"I know some districts have spent some money and hired some staff anticipating what the final dollars are gonna be," Stellmacher said. "[But] we’ve been cautious, not wanting to spend money that we might not end up getting."

That means ESSER 3, which was intended for districts to use starting this school year, would not be spent by Kettle Moraine until the next school year.

Grafton School District Director of Business Services Topher Adams said his district is waiting to get confirmation of its ESSER 3 allocation before budgeting the money. He said the district may spend the money on additional summer school offerings or new academic supports for students.

"A delay in ESSER is really going to be a delay in what programs we could put out there," Adams said.

As of Monday afternoon, Wisconsin was one of only four states in the country without federal approval of their ESSER 3 plans.

Roza said these bureaucratic delays ultimately mean the money is slower to get to the students who need support.

"The effects for kids are enormous from the pandemic, so at a certain point, we are gonna need to dig in and start helping out kids," Roza said. "And if you don’t have a plan approved, it does seem to hold up some elements in your system."

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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