Several education administration organizations are asking for additional clarification and flexibility for extending spending deadlines for federal pandemic relief funds, according to a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on July 22.
The organizations, which include AASA, The School Superintendent Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, said more guidance is urgently needed as school systems make spending decisions for the three pockets of funding that comprise the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief fund.
In total, ESSER funding equals $189.5 billion, which is nearly 2 ½ times the amount of the FY 2022 budget for the Education Department. ESSER funds are designed to help schools recover from pandemic-related setbacks.
In a May 13 letter to AASA, the Education Department said it would consider school districts' requests for an 18-month spending extension for ESSER III funding, known also as the American Rescue Plan, beyond the Sept. 30, 2024, obligation deadline.
But while the education administration organizations are grateful for this flexibility, there has been no guidance since the May letter, even as inflation drives up prices of district purchases, said Sasha Pudelski, AASA’s director of advocacy.
"As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we want to make sure that we're making the wisest investments possible," Pudelski said.
Specifically, the organizations are seeking:
- Confirmation that the 18-month spending extension option also applies to ESSER I and ESSER II funds. The obligation deadlines for ESSER I and II are Sept. 30, 2022, and Sept. 30, 2023, respectively.
- Consideration of a further liquidation extension for ESSER III funds to Dec. 31, 2026, rather than March 31, 2026, so districts and states can tap this money through the end of the 2025-26 school year.
- Implementation of a streamlined process for requesting spending extensions. Submitting and reviewing extension requests on a district case-by-case basis would be an "extraordinary burden," the letter said. Rather, the organizations suggest allowing states to apply for a blanket spending extension for all districts in a state.
The organizations also want clarity on the use of ESSER funds for payments during the spending extensions as some auditors may interpret budget rules to limit expenses to the grant period or obligation deadlines, the letter said.
Changing spending priorities and other influences, such as the continuing pandemic, inflation and supply chain hurdles, have caused districts to pivot from their original budgets for the federal relief funds, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Association of School Business Officials International. The survey included responses from finance leaders at 154 school districts across 35 states.