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Here’s how IPS has spent its federal pandemic funding to date

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By ALEKSANDRA APPLETON Chalkbeat Indiana

Indianapolis Public Schools has spent around 10% of its federal COVID-19 funding to date, directing most of the money to keeping schools open and staffed.

That figure is low compared to other districts in Indiana and across the country. But IPS officials say the state has approved its plans for another 40% of the funding and that it has created an internal budget that accounts for the full allocation.

With $213.5 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief dollars — the most of all Indiana districts — IPS must be deliberate in its spending, said Sarah Chin, deputy chief of staff.

“A district that only received a couple million dollars might have honestly been able to spend all of it on immediate COVID response, like PPE, testing, and technology,” Chin said. “IPS has a much bigger responsibility and also much bigger opportunity to use these dollars to rapidly accelerate student achievement, which means launching an enormous set of new district initiatives and student programming in a very short time horizon.”

The lion’s share of the $21 million spent so far has gone toward what the district describes as “stabilizing schools.” That means avoiding staff cuts due to enrollment drops and purchasing the personal protective equipment needed to keep doors open.

But with COVID-19 protocols easing, and Indiana schools able to stay open consistently, a growing portion of the funds is going to tracking and improving academics.

There’s no typical way that the nation’s 14,000 school districts have chosen to spend their emergency funding so far, said Katie Silberstein, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

Districts tend to spend the funding in the order that they received it. The latest and largest pot of money — ESSER III — is likely to be the funding source for capital improvements, but also requires districts to reserve some money to address learning loss, Silberstein said.

The percentage that IPS has spent so far is comparatively low,

Silberstein said. Districts may be slow to spend their relief money due to being unfamiliar with having such a large amount of funding all at once, she said. Or they may face a slow start to capital projects, or roadblocks to hiring.

Chin said IPS has applied to the state and been approved for projects representing 40% of its ESSER allotment but that officials don’t submit those applications until the district is ready to spend the money.

As a result, some future projects may be accounted for internally but have yet to be submitted to the state, such as $4 million earmarked to match tutoring scholarships from the state when those become available.

Furthermore, Chin said, many costs are long-term or will grow with time, like the tutoring pilots launched at a limited number of schools this spring.

“This represents only a fraction of the total amount we will spend on tutoring as we prepare to scale and expand tutoring across the district over the next two years,” Chin said.

The district tracks its expenditures online. Here are the most notable categories of spending so far.

Keeping schools open and students in person

• The district’s single greatest spending category has been $8.9 million on preventing layoffs due to enrollment declines that resulted in less state funding, according to a December ESSER presentation. This includes funding teachers in K-12 grades, as well as food service staff.

• Another $2.2 million has gone to COVID-19 safety, including purchasing tests and personal protective equipment.

• After offering a $300 incentive to each staff member to get a COVID-19 vaccine by September 2021, IPS spent $813,800 on the initiative and reported a 71% vaccination rate in November. 

Tracking and improving academics

• The district has spent $2.6 million on purchasing new English/language arts and math curriculum materials, as well as $576,300 on curriculum-focused professional development for teachers.

Managing and distributing ESSER funds

• The district is also responsible for sharing ESSER fund. It has sent $4.1 million to nonpublic schools, township schools and innovation schools, as state policy requires.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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