Are districts frugal or simply confused when it comes to ESSER spending?

Los Angeles Unified, the largest school district in the nation, has yet to spend even half of its COVID relief funds, and the narrative is shared across most districts.

At the moment, school districts are essentially sitting on a gold mine of free money to spend at their discretion, as long as it’s used to provide relief in an area that was impacted as a result of the pandemic. But while most suffered some sort of toll—whether it be in student academics, staffing, mental health, you name it—districts have been slow to spend these funds.

By September 2024, districts will no longer have access to ESSER funds, which will mark the beginning of what one economist calls “the bloodletting.”

“Public education has not seen this sort of right-sizing, fiscal cliff, whatever you call it, of this magnitude at any time in the past, including the last recession,” said Dr. Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, in a webinar last week. “I think it’s going to be quite shocking.”

And according to data from the Edunomics Lab, it seems that most districts are mindful of this looming fiscal cliff as they budget their ESSER funds. For example, many districts suffered, and are still suffering, from staffing shortages due to the pandemic. However, they must be careful when offering monetary incentives to current and potential employees because while they can afford those options now, soon they may not be able to.

But just how are districts choosing to spend their ESSER dollars? Let’s take a look at some of the largest districts that have such data available:

Los Angeles Unified, California

L.A. Unified, the largest school district in the country with more than 460,000 students, has yet to spend half (45.7%) of its whopping $4 billion in allocated ESSER funds, according to data from the Edunomics Lab. In total, the district has spent over $1.8 billion.

In terms of its ESSER III funds, the district has only spent 22.5% in total. L.A. Unified has focused heavily on addressing learning loss with more than $310 million allocated in that area. The district’s second-highest spending went toward “resource schools,” according to the data, totaling more than $116.5 million.

Regarding student mental health services, the district has allocated more than $13 million, significantly lower than its largest expenditures. And finally, in one of the most heavily focused areas in K-12 education as a result of the pandemic—education technology—the district has spent nearly $17 million.

Houston Independent School District, Texas

Houston ISD, the eighth-largest school district in the nation with more than 196,000 students, was given more than $1.2 billion in ESSER funds. Yet, the district has spent a little more than one-third (39%) of its funds in total, which equates to more than $485 million.

Regarding the district’s ESSER III spending, the data looks much different. Payroll is the largest spending category, coming in at more than $87.6 million. Professional and contracted services are second with more than $45.7 allocated, and “capital outlay” is third with over $20.6 million.

Wake County Schools, North Carolina

Wake Country Schools, home to more than 159,000 students, seems to be the district that walks to the beat of its own drum as its spent nearly 65% of its total ESSER funds.

While the district’s available data is rather limited, more than $75 million was spent on salaries and benefits alone, indicating that hiring and retaining teachers and staff continues to be a top priority, even for the largest districts.

Do districts need direction? Or are they simply being cautious?

With the majority of their money unspent, the question is whether districts need federal guidance on how to allocate these resources. In August, nearly 700 superintendents from AASA, The School Superintendents Association issued a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona pleading for an extension on the ESSER spending deadline.

“We continue to act with great urgency in investing ESSER funding in our classrooms and buildings,” the letter states. “Additional time to liquidate the ARP funds ensures that we maintain the critical pandemic-related services that our students require to overcome the challenges of the past three academic years.”

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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