Three years and $190 billion of federal taxpayer funding later, K-12 schools face the sudden reality that Covid gives and, just as certainly, takes away. Yet Education Week and the news media continue to sound the alarm over the impending reality that schools will need to adjust their budgets to pre-pandemic levels as the federal windfall disappears later this year.

For some districts, it’s a million (or multi-million) dollar question: How will you pay for that when ESSER [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] runs out?

Schools nationwide received an unprecedented surge in federal funding during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest of the three rounds of funding is set to expire after the current school year.

Districts invested the money in a wide range of initiatives aimed at reversing students’ pandemic-induced academic slide, often hiring dozens of new employees to work with students, or contracting with outside vendors to run new programs or renovate aging facilities.

But ever since the $190 billion in COVID relief funds arrived in district pocketbooks, the question of how school systems will recover when the money dries up has been top of mind.

That’s the dilemma for school districts like Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, just across the Red River in Minnesota. Both districts anticipate cutting some positions underwritten with pandemic funds, according to Forum News.

Public schools in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks expect to cut more staff positions next year as federal COVID-19 relief funds run dry.

Grand Forks Public Schools expects to eliminate four special education coordinator positions and does not currently have funding budgeted for its Mentor Center, while East Grand Forks will cut three student support positions. These positions are currently funded through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER.

Grand Forks schools collected far more in federal relief than smaller East Grand Forks, some $29 million over the program’s three phases. It’s instructive to see the wide latitude given school districts in allocating remaining funds that must be spent by the end of 2024.

Grand Forks will spend $9.1 million in ESSER funds this year, including $2.7 million on staff salaries and benefits and $3.5 million toward capital improvements at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.

Another $2.8 million is expected to go toward one-time expenses or toward closing the gap on the $1.5 million operating deficit Grand Forks is expected to run this year, Baumbach said.

The district intends to incorporate some of those ESSER-funded positions into the general ledger and drop others.

“We knew that it was one-time money, and if you’re going to invest in a position, you need to understand that it might go away in the end if you can’t find replacement funds for it,” Baumbach said.

It’s largely the same in the East Grand Forks district on a smaller scale, meaning few staff hired with pandemic funding can expect to retain their jobs next school year.

[East Grand Forks Superintendent Bryan] Hackbarth said the district was “probably going to take on one or two positions” currently being paid for by COVID relief dollars this year.

“We didn’t get rid of all of them,” Hackbarth said.

The district is using its remaining $400,000 in ESSER funds to finance summer school as well as after-school programs and tutoring.

Until now, pandemic funding helped mask the extent of the structural budget deficits now faced by both school districts, along with additional staff reductions now on the table.

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