Educated spending
27 Jun 2021 — Journal Gazette
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Katie Fyfe | The Journal GazetteSixth graders study during summer school at Memorial Park Middle School on Thursday. Federal funds approved through the American Rescue Plan Act are covering the cost of teacher salaries, transportation and classroom assistants.

Schools are seeing a cash infusion of almost $123 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act : the largest federal investment in education in U.S. history. A great deal of money flows to northeast Indiana through public, private and parochial schools serving at-risk students, where officials must show the money is used to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike state funds that have increasingly ignored individual student needs, the latest round of COVID-19 relief money is allocated to target at-risk students, those from households that likely bore the worst of the pandemic's effects. While it resulted in wide discrepancies in who will get the money, it promises to go a long way in addressing long-standing inequity in school funding.

Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the district's 100.8 million federal allocation "takes your breath away." Only Indianapolis Public Schools, with 135.9 million, received more.

"But I think we have found a way to spend it on things that are important for our district that we just wouldn't have been able to consider without this money," Friend said of the funds, which must be appropriated by the fall of 2024.

Summer school instruction was first on the list, meeting requirements to use 20% of funds to address learning loss. Fort Wayne has not offered a traditional summer school program in recent years, but this year has classes for kindergarten through grade 8 at Memorial Park and Blackhawk middle schools. State funds are covering the cost of credit recovery programs at each of the district's high schools.

About 100 teachers are covering K-8 classes. The district also is keeping its school media centers open this summer so students can check out books and materials. It has partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, providing teachers for programs at multiple locations. Fort Wayne teachers are also staffing programs through the city's parks and recreation program, YMCA programs and community centers.

While the first round of COVID-19 funding addressed needs for technology, personal protective equipment, nursing staff and cleaning supplies, the new money is going primarily to academic needs. Some will also be available for facility needs, such as air-quality improvements, to provide better learning environments.

"We've got kids getting opportunities all over the city," Friend said. "And it's all being paid through ESSER III."

The money should go a long way in bolstering achievement. It is allowing the district to reduce class sizes with the addition of 29 teachers this year. There also will be academic advisers and classroom interventionists, who work one-on-one with struggling students.

Superintendent Dan Hile of Smith-Green Schools in Churubusco said his district, set to receive about $668,000, falls on the lower end for allocations. The Whitley County district has about 1,200 students.

"We're still very appreciative that we're receiving funding at all. It's still money that is generously given to us," he said. "We haven't made any firm decisions, but we've talked a lot about using at least a portion of that to address some air-quality concerns in our building. Some of these were things we were looking at prior to the pandemic ... but I think our experience during the pandemic definitely highlighted that these are things we should improve while we have this opportunity."

Congress approved the latest funds without support from northeast Indiana's representatives. Both Sens. Todd Young and Mike Braun voted no on the American Rescue Plan Act, as did 3rd District Rep. Jim Banks.

Indiana schools will see a 1.8 billion share of the total 122.7 billion. In Allen County, nearly 130.2 million will be available to the four public school districts and public charter schools. Smith Academy for Excellence, a Fort Wayne charter school, will receive about 326,000, for example. Another $78 million will be earmarked for private and parochial schools statewide. 

The new money adds to the alphabet soup of education acronyms. "ESSER III" is the term school officials use for the third phase of federal funds approved in the past 15 months. It's shorthand for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. It also comes with significant regulations: A frequently asked questions document from the U.S. Department of Education runs 61 pages.

Unlike the city of Fort Wayne, which has already received about half of its American Rescue Plan Act money, school funds are administered on a reimbursement basis through the Indiana Department of Education.

"Every decision we make, we have to be careful that we are within their guidelines because we are going to get audited within three or four years and we have to make sure we aren't paying any money back," Friend said.

In both the state's largest school district and in one of its smallest, student needs were well known, but they grew when classes were canceled, family life was disrupted and uncertainty surrounded almost everything. The federal infusion allows all schools to target challenges laid bare by the pandemic. Spent wisely, it can also leave the region in better shape going forward.

This story is provided free courtesy of The Fort Wayne Newspapers.
"Educated spending" Journal Gazette 27 Jun 2021: A9