Kenosha County school district is the only one in the state to turn down federal pandemic aid
When students return to classrooms in a couple months, they may notice building renovations, new textbooks, or even new staff.
Those are some of the ways Wisconsin school districts are using $1.5 billion in federal pandemic aid known as ESSER 3. It stands for Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief, and was included in the American Rescue Plan.
But there’s one district that didn’t receive any of that money—because leaders turned it down. The Paris School District in rural southeastern Wisconsin declined about $320,000 in federal funding.
The district includes a single K-8 school in Kenosha County with about 280 students, many of whom open-enroll from other districts. If Paris had accepted ESSER 3 funds, it would have equated to about $1,100 per student.
"It’s really remarkable to hear that somebody is turning down that much money," said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of Georgetown University’s FutureEd think tank.
Jordan, who studies how districts are using ESSER funds, doesn't know of any other district refusing to accept the money.
"There’s certainly so much need districts have right now and you have such a broad array of uses you can put the money to," Jordan said.
Schools are using it to pay for everything from tutoring to HVAC upgrades.
Administrator asked about CDC guidelines
Paris’s top administrator, Roger Gahart, and every member of the school board either declined to be interviewed, or didn’t return repeated requests for a comment.
Emails show Gahart was concerned about the money being tied to CDC guidelines.
"No amount of money is insignificant if it comes attached with strings to which the potential recipient is unwilling to tie," Gahart said in an email to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) March 23. "Why is this grant tied in any way to CDC guidelines? Please assure us, and will the DPI (and/or Governor Evers) attest that, should the Paris J1 School District accept ESSER III funds, we will NOT in any way, shape, or form, be committed to following any CDC 'safety recommendations,' such as those listed on the DPI ESSER III webpage, at any time in the future?"
Gahart continued: "With receipt of that written guaranteed assurance (attestation), we could possibly consider options and strategies to help our district effectively receive ESSER III funds. There is just so much more to this round of ESSER than the prior two...or perhaps it just has to look that way. Either way, we follow our hearts and stay on the path of integrity."
The CDC recommends masking in schools if a community reaches a “high” level of COVID-19 spread, but Gahart didn’t say if it was that recommendation or another he takes issue with. Regardless, the Department of Public Instruction assured him that districts don’t need to follow CDC guidance to receive the funding.
DPI Grants Specialist Michael Dennison wrote: "Certainly the list is longer than with the previous ESSER grants, but the requirements remain respectful of local control by elected School Boards."
Dennison said school districts are required to describe the safety precautions they've taken during the pandemic, if any.
"If your district’s Board did not pass policies regarding the specific safety recommendations, your district may select 'The [local education agency] has not adopted any policy for this safety recommendation.' The extent to which the LEA adopts the CDC safety recommendations does not impact the amount of ESSER funds the district receives," Dennison wrote.
That didn’t change Gahart and the school board’s decision—they still turned down the $320,000.
The U.S. Department of Education confirmed that following CDC guidance is not a prerequisite to receive ESSER grants. A spokesperson wrote: “Refusing to use these critical resources hurts students and their path to recovery.”
Paris did accept $217,000 from the first two rounds of federal pandemic relief, which Gahart referenced in his email. It appears the concerns about the money being tied to CDC guidance only came up with the third round of funding.
Dan Domenech is head of the national School Superintendents Association. He hasn’t heard of any other school district turning down the federal funds.
"Generally school districts are delighted to receive funding," Domenech said. "I can only assume with the information I have that it’s just a misunderstanding on their part."
Whether it’s a misunderstanding or not, the $320,000 Paris rejected has now been distributed among other Wisconsin school districts.
Phyllis Jordan, the researcher with Georgetown University, wonders what Paris could have done with the money.
"What are the unmet needs your students are suffering?" Jordan asked. "Have your students lost ground during the pandemic? Are they having mental health needs that are unmet? Are there capital improvement projects you’ve been waiting to do but you haven’t had the money to do? All of those issues you could address with this money, so leaving it on the table seems like you’re leaving your students behind."
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