Carteret County Schools are swimming in money as state and federal emergency funds flood into the county to assist in remediation efforts needed in response to academic performance declines resulting from the disruption of in-person classroom instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And though this money is welcomed, the county school board and its administrators need to be very cautious and wise in how they plan on using these funds.
The county expects to receive $21.58 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Stabilization (ESSERS) funds over the next five months in three phases. The first phase, or traunche, of funding amounting to $1.65 million, was received earlier in the year with the caveat that it must be spent by September 30, 2022. Carteret County Superintendent, Dr. Rob Jackson, told the school board recently that those funds will be utilized by the end of this school year.
A second wave of money, $6.1 million, will be released in the next month once the county has created a budget for the use of those funds, which must be received by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) by May 9. A third wave of funds, amounting to $13.83 million, will be released later in the year.
Earlier in the year the state provided $3.3 million in emergency funding which, when added to ESSERS funds, will give the county school system over $25 million in emergency funding. Just for comparison’s sake, the county’s annual school budget request to the county commissioners for the 2021-22 fiscal year is $29.46 million.
While these funds are appreciated they are arriving fast with little direction other than the requirement that at least 20% must be used to address “learning loss,” according to Dr. Jackson. Unfortunately, the rush to send money from state and federal coffers, is coming with little guidance for the recipients while at the same time requiring that plans be established immediately for the use of the funds.
In presenting a report on these emergency financial resources, Dr. Jackson correctly warned the county board that these are emergency funds and not recurring funds for developing long term programs.
The most recent ESSERS funding wave of $6.1 million, requiring a plan with little more than a month’s notice, is indicative of throwing money at a problem before the problem itself can be adequately identified. This traunche of money does require that it be used to fund a summer school program, but the details of how the program will be operated is left to the county administration.
There is no question that students everywhere have fallen short academically. But before any action is be taken there should be a needs assessment whereby the size and scope of these academic failures are identified. Once this assessment is concluded then plans need to be developed and programs initiated. But none of these funding programs allow for this assessment to be developed.
In early January the N.C. Board of Education (BOE)was informed that end-of-grade testing for the fall semester indicated significant declines in math with a slight decline in language arts across the K-12 grades. There is every reason to believe that this decline has only accelerated despite the effort to reinstitute in-person classes. But the state BOE or DPI did nothing to prepare local school districts for what most educational professionals knew would be required- remediation programs.
Considering that school administrators and their boards have been working hard to keep the schools operating and at the same time preparing budgets for consideration by the county commissioners, it is extremely difficult for those same education leaders to simultaneously prepare budgets for problems that are not fully identified.
The problem is identifying the academic losses and that will only happen over time, which may take several years. School systems are saddled with the difficult task of establishing the programs to address these needs while simultaneously maintaining the academic programs that currently exist. These are immense challenges that can, paradoxically, be made worse by simply throwing money at the problem without a clear path.
The county school board, administrators, teachers and parents need to be very cautious in how they utilize these emergency funds. Considering that students are now matriculating to the next grade level or in the case of high school seniors, entering the job market or pursuing a college degree, there is little margin for error. The solutions to this national crisis of educational decline will require time, patience and imaginative solutions in addition to money.