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

School districts left in limbo by delay in pandemic aid plan are finally finding out their funding

The Hamilton-Sussex School District in Waukesha County is one of the districts that has been waiting to find out how much ESSER 3 funding it will receive. The funding is intended to help students catch up from the impacts of the pandemic.
Emily Files
The Hamilton-Sussex School District in Waukesha County is one of the districts that has been waiting to find out how much ESSER 3 funding it will receive. The funding is intended to help students catch up from the impacts of the pandemic.

Families who have been waiting to find out how school districts will spend federal stimulus money may get answers soon.

Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act almost a year ago. Now, Wisconsin’s plan for distributing that money to school districts is headed for full federal approval.

The funding is known as ESSER 3, which stands for Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief. It can be used for tutoring, school mental health staff, or even building improvements.

Wisconsin’s ESSER 3 plan was delayed, in part, by a Republican-authored provision to financially reward districts that were open in-person. Republicans on the Joint Committee on Finance wanted to send $114 million to schools based on their in-person instruction hours.

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

The U.S. Department of Education said it wasn't allowed because it excluded districts that serve Wisconsin's most disadvantaged students. The department gave Wisconsin's plan partial approval in December but said the state needed to make some revisions.

The state Department of Public Instruction came up with a compromise. The new plan will still distribute some money based on in-person instruction – about $38 million. That share of ESSER 3 has fewer restrictions, so DPI officials believe using it for schools that were open in-person will be allowed.

DPI is using much of the rest, about $67 million, to make sure all districts get a minimum grant of $578 per student.

DPI spokesman Chris Bucher told WUWM the department expects to get full federal approval of the new plan.

This means school districts like Grafton, a suburb north of Milwaukee, finally know how much ESSER 3 money they’ll receive. In Grafton’s case, it’s about $1.6 million.

"From a planning perspective it’s been challenging in terms of having dollar amounts put on the table and then having them pulled back," said Grafton business manager Topher Adams.

The money that state and federal officials are wrangling over is only a sliver of Wisconsin’s $1.5 billion ESSER 3 windfall. Ninety percent of the money is spoken for because it’s distributed through the Title 1 formula, which is based on poverty levels. That means districts like MPS are getting a lot, and have known for a while how much they’re getting.

The districts that have been in limbo are the ones receiving money from the 10% of funds that is left to the state to distribute. Those districts are the more affluent ones – mainly in the suburbs.

While they’ve been waiting for final dollar amounts, school districts have been required by federal law to get public input on how they’re going to spend ESSER 3. They have a deadline of March 11 to submit their plans to the state. That means districts like Grafton have been asking for public input despite not knowing their final numbers.

"It just had a sort of very different frame or feel when you’re going out to say, what should the money be used for, and you’re not sure how much money there is," Adams said. "I mean imagine telling – hey how should we spend this money, there’s going to be $100,000 versus a million dollars."

In Waukesha County, the Hamilton-Sussex School District has been forced to piecemeal its ESSER 3 planning. First, it came up with a plan for how it would spend its Title 1 allocation of about $730,000. Now, the compromise plan drafted by DPI makes Hamilton eligible for $3.5 million more.

"Right now, we are currently in the budget-building process for next year, so it is slowing down our process because of the uncertainty of our revenue," said Hamilton assistant superintendent Shelli Reilly.

ESSER 3 is intended to provide new services and programs for students to address the impacts of the pandemic.

But both Reilly in Hamilton and Adams in Grafton say they may have to use some of their federal money just to plug holes in their budgets. That’s because Republican lawmakers have kept state funding for schools mostly flat during a time of increasing costs.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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