Over the last two years, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funds have been a game changer for schools. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. DoE) adopted a new timeline that makes facility modernization and capital improvement projects much more feasible for district leaders. The DoE extended the spending timelines related to ESSER III School Funding, which provides schools with $122 billion in relief and recovery funds.
Before the extension, all funds had to be obligated by September 30, 2024 and spent within 120 days, by January 2025. Under these tight timelines, labor shortages and supply chain issues were putting much-needed capital improvement projects at risk of non-completion. Now, districts may extend the spending timelines up to 18 months, to April 2026, to complete a project. Funds still must be allocated by September 30, 2024. States need to formally apply to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of their school districts to receive the extension.
The extension will greatly benefit districts looking to prioritize capital improvement projects that include engineered solutions, critical equipment and guaranteed outcomes.
Apply stimulus funds to create long-term budget stability
School districts have invested ESSER dollars in a wide array of near- and long-term priorities, ranging from academic interventions to staff retention to new technologies. Now that many districts have tackled their most pressing needs, the stimulus extension creates a unique opportunity to bundle remaining funding into comprehensive infrastructure projects that will reduce costs and stabilize budgets for years to come, all while modernizing the learning environment to meet changing needs post-pandemic.
Leaders can use this one-time stimulus funding to impact overall budgetary stability in the long-term. Instead of using ESSER monies on things that require perpetual funding, which will likely create additional burden on annual budgets when stimulus runs out, school districts may realize more benefit by funding construction projects that build a foundation for improved efficiency, streamlined operations and more flexible, effective learning spaces.
For example, the St. Joseph School District in Missouri leveraged ESSER funds to complete a comprehensive facility enhancement project. The multi-phase project includes many air quality improvements, including replacing end-of-lifecycle HVAC systems and extending heating and cooling into new parts of school buildings that were not previously conditioned. These improvements will enhance the learning environment for the students and save the district nearly $4 million over 15 years.
These same building initiatives that can be covered by ESSER today have traditionally been funded by taxpayers and put to bond votes. Thanks to this once-in-a-generation stimulus program, districts that are proactive and allocate all available funding by the deadlines, can demonstrate to the community how they’re leading through wise fiscal stewardship.
Design and implement large-scale modernization
Infrastructure modernization and energy efficiency projects are a good way to stretch stimulus funds. Unlike options that require perpetual funding, a modernization project can reduce long-term operating costs and help districts accelerate their master facilities plans. By using these funds to pay for expensive capital improvements, monies previously budgeted for such things can be reinvested into mission-critical district priorities.
DeKalb County Schools used ESSER funds to support COVID-19 mitigation and improve indoor air quality. These improvements are part of a comprehensive upgrade the district began in 2018. By addressing their maintenance backlog and implementing energy and operational conservation technologies such as a building automation system, the county reduced costs by 29 percent. DeKalb’s leaders captured those savings and reinvested them to improve safety and security measures on campus, an important project that the district was struggling to fund. They installed security cameras, new badging systems, security fencing and a secure entryway vestibule.
Invest in impactful projects to showcase wise financial stewardship
A superintendent’s job has become more complex over the past few years and these leaders now face the added stress of managing tight expiration dates of stimulus funding that could make or break their long-term ambitions. While many leaders are eager to use stimulus to modernize district facilities, there are sometimes competing rules at the federal and local level. The federal government is supplying money for specific uses; whereas state and local governments have their own expectations of how money is invested in the school system to help balance their overall budgets. This dynamic has many superintendents struggling to make decisions that not only comply with the various rules, but that can also be executed within the allotted program timeline.
Districts that find a way to manage through the complexity of ESSER rules and supply chain challenges have a unique opportunity to make long-lasting change that benefits student for decades to come. By working with an expert consultant, school districts can ensure they are using ESSER funds properly, while benefiting from guaranteed performance of facility upgrades. These funds can be used to eliminate a lifetime of deferred maintenance, as well as be proactive about solving tomorrow’s problems today.
Learn more about how districts of all sizes are tapping into their stimulus funding in the eBook, Five steps to stretch your remaining stimulus dollars.