Facility Needs Ought To Be a Fit for ESSER Funds

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, Finance & Budgets, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2022

Executive Perspective

It was in the year 2000 that then-President Bill Clinton proposed approval of $25 billion in school modernization bonds and $6.5 billion in Urgent School Renovation Loans and Grants. I was then the superintendent of the Fairfax County Schools in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. At the time, the Fairfax school system could have easily been first in the category of having the most students in portables. They were scattered behind every school building in the county, taking over playgrounds and athletic fields.

Because of our proximity to the White House, the president often chose Fairfax as the preferred setting to make points that supported his proposals on educational issues. We were the perfect background for his school modernization proposal.

That year he chose to visit Herndon Elementary School, a facility with as many portables in the field behind the school as classrooms within the building. While I accompanied him during his visit, he made mention to the news media of the many portables and, thus, the need for funding.

I took the opportunity to respectfully correct him by saying while we very much needed funding, we referred to the portables as learning cottages. Unfortunately, the money never came, and the learning cottages remained.

Inaction Continues

Early in his administration, President Biden’s proposal to provide $100 billion for school modernization also was removed from the infrastructure bill approved by Congress. No significant investment in school buildings has occurred since the Great Depression. Perhaps because the Constitution gave states the responsibility to provide a public education, the federal government does not feel compelled to act. Yet school infrastructure bears the highest infrastructure cost next to highways.

The U.S. General Accountability Office’s survey of schools in 2020 found “53 percent of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems” with nearly 41 percent reporting issues with HVAC systems. This came during a pandemic when school districts were under tremendous pressure to have children in school, in person.

Although the three tranches of ESSER funding were not specifically intended for construction or infrastructure use, it is allowable. Districts have been subject to criticism for using funds that way, but many districts, particularly high-poverty districts, have no other source. A recent “State of Our Schools Report” indicates that low-poverty districts spend an average of $5.2 million per school on infrastructure needs while high-poverty districts average $3.8 million.

After the failure of the infrastructure bill for schools, AASA began to hear requests from superintendents for an extension of time on the use of ESSER funds, particularly for school infrastructure needs. Unlike other forms of expenditures, the contracting process for infrastructure work can be longer and extend beyond the three-year period currently in place.

We repeatedly brought this to the attention of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who several months ago sent a letter to AASA advising us that his department would allow for an extension of the liquidation date.

The Education Department does not have the authority to extend the obligation date, which is when the school district makes a legal commitment to spend the funds, but upon a review of the request, it can extend the liquidation date, which is when the district pays for the work.

It is important to note that it is the state education agency that will need to make the request for the extension, so it is important that interested superintendents ensure their state apply for the extension. For ARP funds, the liquidation date extension would be Jan. 28, 2025.

Extension Priorities

The Education Department has indicated that infrastructure projects will have priority on extension requests, but extensions may be requested for other projects as well. There are many areas that need clarification and additional guidance from the federal government. We hope that guidance and clarification will be in place at the time you read this.

Although there is merit to those who argue that ESSER funds should be used to advance the learning of our students, we also must acknowledge that our students need to be taught in safe environments conducive to learning.

We see in the statistics I shared earlier that high-poverty districts that have the greatest need spend the least on infrastructure because they cannot raise the necessary funds in their communities. If the federal government cannot achieve passage of an infrastructure bill for schools, then districts should be allowed to use whatever dollars are available in ESSER funding.