When students return to class in a few months, they may notice building renovations, new textbooks, or even new staff.
These are some of the ways Wisconsin school districts are using $1.5 billion in federal pandemic assistance known as ESSER 3. It stands for Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief, and has been included in the American rescue plan.
But there is a district that has not received any of this money, because the leaders have refused it. The Paris School District in rural southeast Wisconsin turned down about $320,000 in federal funding.
The district includes a single K-8 school in Kenosha County with approximately 280 students, many of whom enroll freely from other districts. If Paris had accepted ESSER 3 funds, this would have amounted to approximately $1,100 per student.
“It’s truly remarkable to hear that someone is turning down so much money,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of the Georgetown University think tank FutureEd.
Jordan, who studies how districts use ESSER funds, doesn’t know of any other districts refusing to accept the money.
“There’s definitely so much need in the districts right now and you have such a wide range of uses that you can put the money into,” Jordan said.
Schools use it to pay for everything from tutoring to HVAC upgrades.
Admin asked about CDC guidelines
Paris’s top administrator, Roger Gahart, and all school board members declined to be interviewed or failed to return repeated requests for comment.
The emails show Gahart was concerned the money was tied to CDC guidelines.
“No amount of money is insignificant if it comes with terms that the potential recipient does not want to bind,” Gahart said in an email to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) on March 23. “Why is this grant tied in any way Please assure us, and will the DPI (and/or Governor Evers) certify that, if Paris School District J1 accepts ESSER III funds, we in any way commit to following any CDC “safety recommendations”, such as those listed on the DPI ESSER III webpage, at any time in the future?
Gahart continued, “With the receipt of this written guarantee assurance (attestation), we may eventually consider options and strategies to help our district effectively receive ESSER III funds. There is so much more to this series of ESSER than the previous two…or maybe it should just look like that.In all cases, we follow our hearts and stay on the path of integrity.
The CDC recommends masking in schools if a community reaches a “high” level of COVID-19 spread, but Gahart didn’t say whether it was that recommendation or another he disputed. Either way, the Department of Public Instruction assured him that districts did not need to follow CDC guidelines to receive the funding.
Michael Dennison, DPI Grants Specialist, wrote, “Admittedly, the list is longer than with previous ESSER grants, but the requirements remain respectful of local control by elected school boards.”
Dennison said school districts are required to outline any safety precautions they have taken during the pandemic, if any.
“If your district’s board of directors has not adopted policies regarding specific safety recommendations, your district may select ‘The [local education agency] has not adopted any policy for this security recommendation. The extent to which the LEA adopts CDC safety recommendations does not affect the amount of ESSER funds the district receives,” Dennison wrote.
This did not change Gahart and the school board’s decision – they still refused the $320,000.
The US Department of Education has confirmed that following CDC advice is not a prerequisite for receiving ESSER grants. A spokesperson wrote: ‘Refusing to use these essential resources harms students and their path to recovery.’
Paris accepted $217,000 from the first two rounds of federal pandemic relief, which Gahart referenced in his email. It seems that concerns about money tied to CDC guidelines only arose with the third round of funding.
Dan Domenech is the head of the National Association of School Superintendents. He hasn’t heard of any other school districts refusing federal funds.
“In general, school districts are thrilled to receive funds,” Domenech said. “I can only assume with the information I have that it’s just a misunderstanding on their part.”
Whether it was a misunderstanding or not, the $320,000 rejected by Paris has now been split among other school districts in Wisconsin.
Phyllis Jordan, a researcher at Georgetown University, wonders what Paris could have done with that money.
“What unmet needs do your students suffer from? Jordan asked. “Have your students lost ground during the pandemic? Do they have unmet mental health needs? Are there any capital improvement projects you’ve been waiting for but didn’t have the money to do? All those problems you could solve with that money, so leaving it on the table feels like you’re leaving your students behind. »
Have an education question you’d like Emily Files of WUWM to investigate further? Submit it below.