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Over the past month, a string of developments and deadlines have begun to offer a clearer picture of how Montana’s public school system will make use of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding for K-12 education.

Perhaps the biggest news was the U.S. Department of Education’s Aug. 5 approval of the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s statewide spending plan for education funds contained in the American Rescue Plan Act. Roughly $255 million of those funds was made immediately available on the bill’s passage in April, but the remaining $127 million was withheld pending federal approval of OPI’s plan. Sen. Jon Tester lauded the release of those funds in an official statement this month.

“As I’ve talked with families and educators over the past year, one thing has been crystal clear: This pandemic hit Montana students hard, and we must do everything we can to help get them caught up,” Tester said.

ARPA was the latest of three federal relief packages adopted by Congress, each of which included an Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund specifically targeting K-12 public schools. As with the previous two packages, each of Montana’s 402 public school districts are required to submit individual plans to OPI outlining broad goals and objectives for the funds, along with a corresponding budget detailing proposed expenses.

Tuesday marked the submission deadline for those plans, and according to Jeff Kirksey, OPI’s ESSER program manager, 280 district plans were received as of Aug. 25. Kirksey added that the agency is continuing to work with districts that were unable to meet the deadline. OPI has also received 49 of the corresponding budget proposals, which combined account for $25 million of the $382 million allocated directly to districts under ARPA. Budget proposals are due from all districts on Sept. 1.

Kirksey further noted that 208 districts have submitted budget plans for funding from ESSER II, accounting for $102 million of the $170 million available to districts. The process is already completed for ESSER I funding — OPI received 304 budget plans from districts for that pot of relief money, and has already expended $26 million of the $41 million allocated by Congress.

“As I’ve talked with families and educators over the past year, one thing has been crystal clear: This pandemic hit Montana students hard, and we must do everything we can to help get them caught up.”

Sen. Jon Tester

Based on what he’s gleaned from the plans so far submitted, Kirksey said, school districts in Montana are directing remaining ESSER funds to two distinct areas: facilities upgrades and increased staffing. The former includes HVAC replacements and building expansions, both efforts that address ventilation and social distancing challenges raised during the pandemic. The latter reflects a widespread need among districts to tackle the academic impacts the past year has had on students.

“They’re employing additional educators, additional paraprofessionals, really working to try to maximize instructor-to-student ratios,” Kirksey said. “A number of our districts are also working on summer programming and are employing staff to provide summer programming. And then a lot of districts are also really beefing up their counseling services that are available to students and really trying to meet social-emotional and mental health needs as well.”

As Montana Free Press previously reported, Missoula County Public Schools is planning to use ESSER funds to hire 24 academic and behavioral interventionists to work with students throughout the district.

Of the 49 budget plans submitted for ESSER III so far, OPI data shows that 47% of the requested funding is designated for facility improvements and 44% for staffing.

One of OPI’s primary concerns about ARPA this summer has been the possibility that some school districts won’t meet the funding requirements set by the U.S. Department of Education. Congress crafted ARPA to ensure that states don’t use relief funds to reduce their own budgetary commitments to education, but the formula adopted by federal education officials for calculating state education spending conflicts with the formula used by the Montana Legislature. State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen appealed to the Department of Education several times this summer to alter the requirements, and Tester sent a letter July 22 to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona echoing Arntzen’s concerns. 

In early August, Tester announced that Cardona’s agency had agreed to work with Montana and other similarly affected states to resolve the issue. Arntzen told MTFP this week that the conversation is ongoing, and that she has another meeting scheduled with the Department of Education before the end of the month.

“We’ve given them lots of data and we’re very pleased that they’re willing to listen to us,” Arntzen said. “We are hoping that we’re going to be getting a letter from the secretary that’s going to allow for the flexibilities that are needed in our funding for our schools.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.