Dave Williams CFO Montana Office of Public Instruction
Dave Williams, chief financial officer at the Montana Office of Public Instruction, updates the Board of Public Education on the status of federal COVID-19 relief funds for K-12 schools on Friday, July 16, 2021. Credit: Screenshot courtesy of MPAN

HELENA — On Friday, the Montana Office of Public Instruction delivered an update to the state Board of Public Education about the status of federal COVID-19 relief funds for K-12 schools. According to the figures presented by OPI Chief Financial Officer David Williams, Montana has so far expended roughly $29 million of the $593 million allocated through a trio of laws passed by Congress since the onset of the pandemic. 

The bulk of the relief funding disbursed to schools so far came from the original CARES Act passed in March 2020. Williams informed the board that OPI has spent close to $25 million in CARES funding, with $16 million remaining. Roughly $500,000 of that expenditure was on administrative costs. Of the $170 million directed to Montana schools under a second congressional stimulus package in December 2020, Williams said OPI has disbursed $3.8 million, including $51,000 for administrative costs. The non-administrative expenditures represent what OPI has sent to districts, he added, and doesn’t reflect how much of the money individual districts have spent.

Williams told the board that none of the $382 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, has been spent to date. School districts are required to submit spending plans to OPI to receive relief funding, and the deadline for ARPA-spending submissions is Aug. 24. Montana has until Sept. 30, 2022 to expend the first round of federal funding. The federal deadlines for spending the second and third rounds are September 2023 and September 2024, respectively.

Williams also addressed ongoing concerns at OPI about the federal requirements governing ARPA education funding. OPI Superintendent Elsie Arntzen has said repeatedly, including in an interview with Montana Free Press last week, that funding standards adopted by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure equitable distribution of the money don’t match up with Montana’s education budgeting formula. Without a change in the federal agency’s requirements, Arntzen estimates that 105 Montana schools will not qualify for ARPA funding — a potential loss of as much as $6 million. 

Arntzen briefed the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee earlier this week about the situation, prompting Board of Public Education member Jane Lee Hamman to inquire further during Friday’s meeting. Williams told the board that there’s a “disconnect” between how the federal government calculates enrollment for compliance with per-pupil spending standards and how Montana generates its enrollment figures. The former, he said, is dependent on a current-year head count, while Montana builds its education budget based on either the previous year’s enrollment count or a three-year average. Williams added that OPI is working to resolve the issue, and has had discussions with other states in the region and on the East Coast that are facing similar ARPA requirement challenges.

“A lot of states are looking at this and trying to evaluate how to proceed with this,” Williams said. “We want to adhere to the federal law as the superintendent underscored … But we also want to be able to respect our formula that we have here because it works.”

ARPA also included $12.8 million in relief funding for non-public schools in Montana. Williams said the application period for that funding is scheduled to close this week, and information on spending levels will be presented to the Board of Public Education in September.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...