Technology, learning loss, mental health: Top funding priorities for southern Wisconsin school districts

MADISON, Wis. — School districts are still finalizing how they’ll spend a portion of federal pandemic relief funds going into the coming school year, but a few key priorities are emerging.

In a survey of southern Wisconsin districts, more than a dozen identified funding goals related to learning loss, technology improvements, and investment in social and emotional health for students. But with the funds comes a complicating factor: besides federal limitations, their one-time nature could make budgeting down the road even trickier.

“We really have to consider the shelf in funding that we would hit down the road,” said Tim LeMonds, spokesperson for the Madison Metropolitan School District. “So once it’s gone, it’s out.”

Three bills; billions of dollars

Three times, the federal government passed laws in the last eighteen months that in part sent billions to schools to help with pandemic aid as well as short and longterm recovery. Each time, the money came strapped with its own round of stipulations and guidance, and with different timelines for when the money could be spent.

The first round was the smallest; Wisconsin got about $174 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. The second round of ESSER funding rose to more than $686 million; the final round under Biden’s American Rescue Plan was more than $1.5 billion. Wisconsin hasn’t yet finalized their plan for that third round with the federal government and it hasn’t been distributed yet, a DPI spokesperson said Monday.

Many Wisconsin districts say they’ve used up the first round of distributed funding in the 2020-2021 school year, covering immediate costs like PPE, testing supplies, sanitization materials, and other safety-related expenses. Statewide, data from the Department of Public Instruction provided to News 3 Investigates shows 75% of that first round of funding has been claimed, with 98% of eligible districts so far applying. Just

Essr Funds 1

Data provided by DPI with a timeline of ESSER I & II funds handed out through mid-August

Districts have until 2024 to spend the third round of funding, so the focus for the 2021-2022 school year is deciding how to spend the funds under the second pandemic relief bill passed by Congress last December.

Top priorities for federal aid

The state’s second-largest school district, MMSD spent the first round of money largely in support of the first three semesters of the Covid era: Spring of 2019 and the 2020-2021 school year. According to budget documents, the district said the biggest expenditures went to childcare, food service, technology and Wi-Fi student access, and pandemic safety measures like masks, air quality improvements, Covid testing and contact tracing.
That leaves the second two rounds of money still largely unspent, with round three unlikely to be budgeted until next summer and beyond. A small part of the second (and third) round of funding includes distribution based on in-person learning hours from last year, a calculation the DPI says won’t be finalized until later this flal.

Out of 19 responding school districts in southern Wisconsin who described their top priorities for the federal aid in the coming school year, expenses related to learning loss and academic improvement was a top factor for 14 of the districts, including Middleton-Cross Plains and the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Nine districts each also identified technology improvements and pandemic-related safety and health costs; social and emotional support came in third with eight districts citing that as a key priority.

Associated with the parish community on Madison’s west side, Our Lady Queen of Peace school is installing new wireless internet, replacing their SmartBoards, and buying electronic devices for everyone in the school. But the money won’t stop there: they’re also investing in professional development for their staff to better address students’ social and emotional needs, as well as hiring specialists to help recoup learning loss and improve early student literacy.

In Beloit, technological improvements and new curriculum is a priority for the funding, superintendent Dan Keyser said.

“We want to make sure that when we invest, we invest to have the greatest impact on our students and something that we can sustain once these funds are gone.”

When one-time funds go toward an ongoing need

Several districts, including MMSD, say they’re using the funds to add staff to address better health, social, and emotional wellness for students. MMSD says they’re considering adding a number of positions, and changing some part-time roles they added during the pandemic into full-time roles.

But they’re still unclear how they’d pay for those positions once the federal funds expire in 2024 and schools settle back into their normal–and frequently shrinking–budgets.

“That’s the biggest challenge right now,” Lemonds acknowledged. “Can we afford this three, four years down the road? Those are all factors that are weighing in our decision making.”

That’s a big reason why Keyser says Beloit isn’t sending any money to additional staffing.

“We look at these funds as one-time funds,” he noted. “Once they’re spent, they’re not coming back.”

Want to find out how much your school district is getting?

For the most current breakdowns of how much money each school district is projected to get through the second and third round of federal funding, check below:

Round 2: Click this link, and select “ESSER II allocations through 08/11/21”

Round 3: Click this link, and select “ESSER III allocations through 08/11/21”