Local school districts recently asked the U.S. Department of Education for more time to finish projects like facility upgrades and expanding mental health resources paid for through federal pandemic relief funds.
Three of the 40 Washington state school districts that requested the extension are in Cowlitz County: Castle Rock, Woodland and Toutle Lake.
The U.S. Department of Education in May gave districts the option to ask for an 18-month extension to spend Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds that were passed as part of federal COVID relief packages.
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Nearly 700 school districts across the country in July and again in August wrote a letter to the department saying they needed more time and guidance on how to use the money.
The letter detailed how ongoing cost inflation and supply chain issues have delayed construction projects. Schools are also having trouble staffing certified mental health professionals, the letter states.
Castle Rock Superintendent Ryan Greene said using the funds can be tricky. Waiting on government reimbursements can make the process take much longer than originally expected.
School districts have to pay for what they need upfront, and then go back and apply to get the money reimbursed.
“That extension gives you that added safety net, in case projects don’t get done on time,” Greene said.
The current deadlines for the relief packages are 2023, 2024 and 2025 for the latest package, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Greene said the district was able to pass a capital projects levy that has helped them move ahead with their projects, and has focused on spending ESSER funds for facility upgrades, like replacing roofs and HVAC systems.
Castle Rock is on track to finish some of its building upgrades by June before the second ESSER deadline, he added.
The district received $2.66 million in ESSER funds and has claimed $858,340.
Stacy Brown, executive director of Woodland Public Schools’ business services, said they have funneled much of their funding toward improving HVAC systems, hiring deans for each school and new counselors hired at the elementary school.
“We sat down with our administrators and made a bucket list of what was important,” Brown said.
About 20% of one of the ESSER packages must go toward addressing learning losses, she added. This means spending the funds on extended summer school and after-school learning opportunities.
Woodland received $5.29 million in total and has so far claimed $1.47 million, according to data from Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The deadlines for ESSER have not posed any major challenges for the district, Brown said.
Toutle Lake has also not faced any issues or delays with spending the money, said Lynne Williams, the district’s business manager.
The district has been able to spend the majority of its funds from the first package, she added.
Toutle Lake received $953,846 total from the federal ESSER funds and has spent $473,089, according to OSPI data.
The district has used funds for projects like adding two new classrooms to reduce class sizes, new technology, summer school and tutoring services, Williams said.
Most local districts have yet to claim their full share of emergency education funds. According to the superintendent’s data, Kelso School District has claimed $8 million of its full $15.2 million allocation. Longview School District has used $5.3 million of its $27.7 million allocation.
In total, districts across Washington state have spent about half of the $2.6 billion given to them.
Sydney Brown is a news reporter for The Daily News covering education and environmental issues in Cowlitz County.