• Uncategorized

N.J. schools got millions in COVID relief funds. Most hasnt been spent yet, list says.

New Jersey ranks near the bottom of the states, in terms of how much of its federal school COVID-19 relief money it has spent, according to a graph released Thursday by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University.

The state placed 44th in the nation, having spent only 26.6% of the $4.7 billion it received in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money.

Starting early in the pandemic, Congress allocated $189.5 billion nationally to help public and private schools operate remotely, prevent infections, and reduce learning loss, among other tasks.

Most other states have spent a larger share of the money they received, according to the graph. Ranking first, Iowa has spent 55% of its money as of Sept. 30, 2022, while the national average among the states was 35.6%. New Jersey placed above only Rhode Island, Nebraska, Wisconsin, New York, Washington, DC, and Vermont, which spent 16%.

The graph included caveats about differences among states. Some give districts money directly; others, like New Jersey, reimburse districts for ESSER money they have used; and delays in documenting spending are possible.

Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, said districts may have committed to long-term priorities and spent only the first years worth of a three-year tutoring program, for example, while HVAC projects, a very common use for funds, can take years to complete.

She noted that some districts are struggling to spend the money, which might amount to an additional annual budget.

Its really hard to figure out how to spend that much money really quickly, and some dont have the capacity for planning and reporting, she said. That would be more likely in states with many small districts, like New Jersey.

The Governors Office on Friday referred a request for comment to the state Department of Education. Laura Fredrick, the departments director of communications, said the graph measures only dollars spent and does not take into account planned expenditures. She said the state has offered to help districts make the best use of the money.

Districts receive support through roundtables, monthly meetings with Executive County Superintendents and Executive County Business Officials, online resources, and one-to-one assistance, Fredrick said.

The pace of spending had increased significantly in August and September after averaging $5 billion a month in the last school year and early summer. Districts have until 2024 to spend the remaining federal funds.

Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents nearly 100 New Jersey districts, said the ranking may not tell the full story.

Districts probably have plans for the remaining funds, but those funds have not been officially allocated in budgets yet, and therefore have not been tracked by the federal government or state Department of Education, she said.

Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing, a nonprofit schools advocacy group, said some districts have planned to use funds for construction projects that can only happen when students arent in the building.

Its not reflective of whats actually happening, she said of the ranking.

For example, school construction projects have long lead times, and supply chain issues have kept some districts from spending money when they wanted to.

Paula White, executive director of JerseyCAN, a schools advocacy group, said the state should audit effective curriculum materials and provide districts with more specific advice in light of the generous amounts of money available.

Thats why this is time for innovation, she said. How do we get creative to do the kinds of things that are necessary?

As a state, New Jersey should be among the most efficient in providing updates, so parents and educators can see how money is being spent and call on local officials to use it most wisely, she said.

Rich Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said while some have urged using COVID relief money to close gaps in the states funding formula which have caused some districts to fire staff and make other cuts state law would need to be revised to allow that. He says, for now, Gov. Phil Murphy is being conservative with spending, with an eye to an economic recession.

But Kyle Rosenkranz, executive director of the New Jersey Childrens Foundation, a school improvement nonprofit, faulted the Murphy administration for choosing to passively funnel those dollars via grants to hundreds of…tiny school districts with minimal guidance beyond minimum legal requirements.

Noting that his son was in kindergarten at the beginning of the pandemic and will be in fifth grade by the time schools must spend the money, he criticized the lack of urgency in spending it.

This home rule approach to the single biggest learning crisis of our time was designed to avoid political conflict at the expense of student learning, he said.

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.

Tina Kelley may be reached at tkelley@njadvancemedia.com.

You may also like...