Local school districts are set to receive hefty chunks of federal dollars in the latest round of coronavirus relief aid, leaving administrators with big decisions on how to spend the money.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 signed into law by President Joe Biden last month included $122 billion for K-12 schools in an effort to address learning loss due to the pandemic and to ensure that schools could reopen safely.
More than $1.1 billion of that money is being distributed to school districts throughout Colorado.
Districts are required to use 20% of their allotments to alleviate learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions such as summer learning or after-school programs.
The remaining 80% can be used in a multitude of ways to address the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Districts have three years to spend the money.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 can expect $9,744,295 to be at its disposal in the near future.
One priority for the district will be tackling learning loss, especially for the district’s high population of low-income, at-risk students.
According to Finance Director Kyle Archibeque, some of the money also could be put to use on training and development opportunities for staff, repairing facilities to provide better air quality or purchasing more buses to expedite transportation and give students more time in the classroom.
“It’s been on the back burner, but we’ve just never had this amount of money to make it happen,” Archibeque said, referring to the possibility of acquiring buses.
Montezuma-Cortez officials will likely wait until the annual student count in October to determine how many buses to purchase and whether to resume door-to-door pickup.
An investment in online learning may still be in the works even though Montezuma-Cortez schools have largely managed to stay open for in-person learning throughout the pandemic.
“We understand that some of our parents may still not put their kids back in-person next year, so we want to make sure we’re prepared on that front,” Archibeque said.
According to Archibeque, hazardous pay and retention stipends might be offered to teachers. Increases in salary will not be offered because they would not be financially sustainable after the federal money ran out.
Superintendent Lori Haukeness campaigned in 2019 for a mill levy to increase teacher salaries, but the ballot measure was rejected by voters.
It is also tricky for officials to get ahead of the curve on planning for the funds when some districts are soon to undergo leadership changes.
Superintendents from Montezuma-Cortez, Durango and Mancos are set to either retire or step down at the end of the current school year.
“You can get stuck in a position doing a lot of work, and then all of a sudden it just changes because you have a new boss,” Archibeque said. “You don’t want to drag your feet, but you don’t want to do too much that falls to waste at the end.”
According to Durango School District 9-R Public Information Officer Julie Popp, the district has received over $3 million in federal aid since the pandemic broke out last spring. Much of that went toward personal protection equipment and summer school costs.
Durango schools stand to receive $4,433,147 in the upcoming batch of federal aid.
The district plans to offer summer school to all grades.
“The goal is to have a focused jump-start to the upcoming school years in July and August to support kids who may have had some issues this year due to COVID,” Popp said.
Other potential avenues for the money include the district’s recently approved bonds or HVAC upgrades.
Mancos School District RE-6 Superintendent Brian Hanson recently pitched to the school board the idea of using part of its next round of federal aid on three years of stipends for teachers and staff for a job well done during the pandemic.
Mancos schools will soon receive $896,799 in federal aid, a substantial sum for a rural district with fewer than 500 students.
Previous aid has gone toward, among other things, hiring a math interventionist to address learning loss and bringing on a K-12 counselor for mental health support.
The new money can extend the contracts of those new hires, but the multi-year stipends remain Hanson’s priority.
“Mainly I’m looking at trying to get it into the hands of teachers and staff,” Hanson said. “That’s more than likely the direction we’re going to go.”
According to the CDE, Dolores School District RE-4A will be allocated $588,641. Though district officials did not provide specific items the funds may be spent on, they did confirm that past rounds of aid went toward PPE, teacher salaries impacted by the pandemic and their online learning curriculum.