At the Board’s Finance Committee meeting on May 3, administrators provided some preliminary information about the $10.6 million that School District 65 is expected to receive in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding.  

Kathy Zalewski, business manager, confirmed that District 65 is expecting to receive a total of $10.6 million in ESSER funds.

She said the funding will come in three phases. The District has been awarded $800,000 in the first phase, said Ms. Zalewski. She said that money has been received and it is being spent right now.

She said the District’s funding for the second phase is $3,015,000 million. The District is in the process of spending those funds and the bulk of those funds will be spent this school year, 2020-2021, and next year, 2021-2022, Ms. Zalewski said. The deadline for spending those funds is Sept. 30, 2023.

“We know that just in this fiscal year, we will be spending over $3 million, just on PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], and expenses related to remote learning technology, and so on. So we have more than enough of these expenses to submit. But there is a detailed plan, and we are actually planning these reimbursements strategically.”

Ms. Zalewski said funding for the third phase has been allocated but not yet approved.

She told members of the Finance Committee, “You will definitely see ESSER II funds in next year’s budget. And depending on federal government actions, you will either see a partial ESSER III, or we’ll wait and see and act accordingly.

“Of course, these funds will have to be spent on things that are approved in the application process. So, we have a team that has been working on it.”

Ms. Zalewski added, “A minimum of 20% of the ESSER III [funds] must be spent to address learning loss. So you will see things like summer school, academic improvement, and intervention spending in our budget in the future. And those funds will have to be expended by the end of September of 2024.”

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said, “One of the things we didn’t want to do is to get caught up in just paying back on things that we’ve done for health and safety. We know that our students and our teachers need more. And so there’s a really aggressive plan for us to do some additional things in the District. And we’ll be bringing that to you in June to talk about exactly what those are.

“And then we’re going to be leading a session where we sit down with our union leaders and our union members, and just pick their brains around what do they see as needs. We’re not going to talk about the money, but more so about their needs.”

Dr. Horton said he wanted to have a vision that would not just be reimbursing costs for ventilation systems and things of that nature. “We want to be sure that we can put our students and our teachers in a better position to accelerate the learning when we return in the fall.”

Board member Sunni Kartha said, “We’re saying that this can only be used on COVID-19 mitigation, remote learning, or lost learning expenditures. How expansively can we define lost learning expenses?”

Dr. Horton said, “It’s pretty flexible. I had a chance to speak with ISBE [the Illinois State Board of Education] back in March and talk about some of the ideas around that. And they were really open to what we can do with those funds. So, we want to make sure that we capitalize on that and take advantage of this opportunity.”

Ms. Kartha said she hoped some part of the funding could go toward mental health supports.

“Definitely,” said Dr. Horton.

Raphael Obafemi, Chief Financial and Operations Officer, said, “I just want to add that you cannot use the funds for raises for employees. You cannot use them for union negotiation of contracts. It has to be related to the effect of COVID-19.”

Joey Hailpern, Chair of the Finance Committee, asked that administrators provide regular updates on how much federal funding has been received and how it has been spent.

“People want to know how it’s being spent and whether it’s being spent wisely,” said Mr. Hailpern. “I certainly have that question. … It would be nice to hear the things that we’re doing. It would also be nice to tie that directly to where is that money coming from? Is that something that we’re paying locally? Is that coming from grants? Is it coming from the ESSER funds?”

Mr. Hailpern added, “I think the worry a lot of people have is that we get used to that money. And then it’s gone one year.  So, we have to live within our means and value-add with the extra money that’s approved.”

Dr. Horton said the District is uniquely positioned to use the ESSER funds strategically as it moves through the process of addressing the structural deficit and the student assignment process.

Mr. Hailpern said the District has both current and emergent needs and the Board wants to have a “longer term vision for financial planning” that will match with the District’s priorities. He said the District’s financial planning needs to be done in coordination with all of District’s student assignment work and the review of its facilities.  

A prior article on the State’s announcement of the funding allocations is available here.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...