Although some school officials have claimed COVID-19 has created new spending needs that exceed available funding, creating financial strain in state schools, districts have been slow to spend federal bailout money provided specifically for those needs, state senators were told Monday.
Of $144 million provided to Oklahoma for school-district needs through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved last spring, just $46 million has been spent at the halfway mark of the 2020-2021 school year, according to officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said districts may be effectively cubby holing those funds.
“The CARES Act dollars that were first given came without knowledge that there would ever be additional funds, and they have until September 2022 to spend those,” Hofmeister said. “So our schools, who just went through a $110 million cut in the funding formula, really were trying to balance out what can we spend here and what can we save here in order to stretch out for a number of years.”
Hofmeister made those comments during a budget hearing conducted by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
Although lawmakers had to reduce state appropriations last spring due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, lawmakers noted at that time that federal bailout funding effectively boosted overall school funding in Oklahoma.
Even as nearly $100 million from the first round of federal COVID-19 bailout funding remains unspent at Oklahoma schools, hundreds of millions more are on the way.
An appropriation bill passed by Congress in December included another $54.3 billion specifically for the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, and that additional money could be spent by schools for COVID-related needs through September 30, 2022.
An analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board estimated that Oklahoma would receive $660.7 million from that fund for state school districts, although the Oklahoma State Department of Education could retain 10 percent of that amount.
One senator indicated much of the initial round of federal COVID-19 bailout funding has been expended on excessive and ultimately unnecessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and technology.
“I’ve heard from several of my superintendents, and I stay in pretty close contact with them all, and several of them have called and said, ‘We have enough PPE and computers to last us a decade,’” said Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, “and that they would really appreciate that money being put into more instructional-type things.”