Around this time last year, some school leaders in Washington state wondered how long federal pandemic aid, totaling $2.6 billion, would last as they readied to reopen schools for good. 

But as it has turned out, districts here and across the country have been relatively slow to spend these dollars, education finance experts say.

State data from this month show that more than half of that $2.6 billion hasn’t been claimed yet — including the vast majority of the most recent and largest round of aid that will expire in fall 2024 totaling more than $1 billion. In June, districts spent around $40 million of those funds. They would need to spend around $54 million a month to use the remainder of the money in an even way by deadline.

A few school districts in the Seattle area, including Kent and Federal Way, have yet to spend any of the latest financial package, which was made available to districts last summer.

The pace reflects just how much administrative work it takes to allocate this much money, on top of the staffing and enrollment challenges that have rocked districts this year, said Katie Silberstein, the strategic projects lead for Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

While some investments, such as summer school or a big construction project, could hit the books soon, in general, districts need to ratchet up their speed soon, Silberstein and her colleagues warn, or they may be delaying investment in important academic programs, and end up in a last-minute rush to spend the money.

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A portion of this federal aid must be spent on programs to help students who attend schools that halted in-person lessons. Given some Washington state students spent more time in remote learning compared with the rest of the country, districts here may have to invest more, Silberstein said. 

Like all other states, Washington received funds for K-12 schools in three packages from Congress — named ESSER I, II, III. ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, and the packages combined total nearly $200 billion for schools nationwide.

Many districts in the Puget Sound region and around the country have decided to spend those funds in the order they were received, meaning that they’ve focused on exhausting their ESSER I and II funds, which expire this fall and next fall, respectively. Some districts that received little funding, such as Issaquah, have managed to spend down all of their awards already. 

These investments have been hard for researchers to track given the way that districts are required to report their spending. School districts have broad discretion, and leaders have reported much of what they’ve spent so far as nonacademic costs: curbing coronavirus transmission, hiring more staff at schools and even filling budget gaps from earlier years. State data shows one of the largest categories for spending is on salaries for health-related services. 

“A lot of our current spending is still under safe operations of schools, continuity of operations and addressing COVID costs,” said Rob Gannon, deputy superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, which received about $93 million in the latest aid package. 

The more money that goes into salaries from these one-time pots of money the greater the chance of a fiscal cliff, said Laura Anderson, associate director of the Edunomics Lab. Seattle, which has used the majority of its funds so far on salaries — and will bargain a new contract with teachers this year — is already anticipating the possibility of budget cuts a few years down the road, according to Gannon.

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There is also a lack of visibility about the future. The federal government required districts to post how they plan to spend ESSER III dollars, but Washington state school districts’ plans are generally more opaque than many other states, listing only broad categories for spending and no dollar amounts. 

That data gap has made it impossible to compare districts’ planned investments with their actual spending, Silberstein said.

Seattle and Bellevue, which have used 15% and 6.6% of their ESSER III funds, respectively, say they plan to spend more beginning this school year. 

Many of the district’s public plans to spend the funds are investments in pre-pandemic projects, including a focus on giving more resources, like teacher training, to schools where most of the district’s African American male students attend.

Some funds from previous aid packages also have gone toward summer school, virtual learning, credit recovery for high school students and services for students with disabilities facing challenges during the pandemic, said Keisha Scarlett, the district’s chief academic officer. 

Among the new projects: The district just adopted a $6 million math curriculum for elementary school students. District staff is also planning to propose a high-dosage tutoring program, a favored strategy for academic recovery, Scarlett added. 

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The Bellevue School District, which received only $14 million in ESSER III funds because of its comparatively lower poverty rate, says it plans to spend the money gradually. 

“You can’t catch up with all the students in one year’s time,” said Melissa Devita, Bellevue’s chief financial officer. 

To invest in academic recovery, the district hired extra teachers in some of its high-poverty elementary schools. And at the high-school level, the district has opened “learning labs” for students to get help in making up credits they may have failed or missed. 

Among the biggest questions remaining about ESSER III that Silberstein and her colleagues ask: Will districts’ investments help kids, and how will that be measured? As of right now, it’s unclear.