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The Bottom Line

    Fiscal CliffNotes

    ESSER Postscript Series, Part 2: Will pandemic relief funds become a scapegoat for deep-rooted issues?

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    For most school districts, looming budget challenges are the result of long-term socioeconomic trends. ESSER is just a small piece of the K-12 fiscal cliff puzzle.

    Districts and communities have long been experiencing:

    • District infrastructure/facilities backlog of ~$180 billion
    • Larger proportions of high-need students: children in poverty, English language learners, students requiring special education programs
    • Inflation/costs increasing faster than funding levels
    • Funding inequity
    • Wage stagnation


    But shorter-term trends, like ESSER, become an easy target for budget crunch blame. When the media puts numbers like $190 billion in headlines, people assume it will be transformative because they apply it to their own lives.


    Let's put $190 billion in context.


    • $190 billion divided by ~50 million students = $3850
    • $3850 divided by 6 eligible fiscal years = $640


    Does an extra ~$640 per student per year still feel transformational?

    (In our national survey with EdWeek, only 3% of teachers and administrators said pandemic aid was "transformational." Distributions also varied widely between districts. The median amount was less than the average: $467 per student per year.) 

    Here's another way to look at it. If you get a 5% bonus, are you going to run out and buy a new house? Probably not. You understand that a bonus is a bonus and a salary is a salary. Similarly, district CFOs understand the difference between baseline operating funds and one-time supplemental grant funding for emergency purchases.


    The public narrative seems to suggest that all ESSER dollars were used for recurring needs that now must be cut.


    Here are a few strategies to counter this narrative:


    • Map out the differences between one-time and recurring costs.
      • In each fiscal year, what % of your ESSER dollars went to one-time purchases (ed tech, HVAC renovations, plexiglass, PPE, testing sites, etc.) and temporary staff/programs (tutors, summer school coordinators, etc.)?
      • What % was used for recurring needs?
      • Paint your funding and spending portrait with a finer brush.

    • Contrast ESSER funding with your baseline operating budget (3% of total? 5% of total?). Using charts and graphs, visually show what the scaffolding for ESSER allocations looked like year to year. 

    • Communicate what budget challenges are actually being driven by more substantial socioeconomic factors. Zoom out 10 years, 20 years. Mine historical data from your district and research national trends to pinpoint the many forces that shape fiscal cliffs.


    Even if ESSER dollars plugged some operational holes (staving off layoffs for example), the last 3+ years did not cause those underlying budget challenges.


    Yes, $190 billion is a big number worth honest scrutiny, but we can't let it cloud the much bigger picture.



    November 28, 2023


    Allovue works with districts and state departments of education across the country to allocate, budget, and manage spending. Allovue's software suite integrates seamlessly with existing accounting systems to make sure every dollar works for every student. Allovue also provides additional services such as chart of accounts and funding formula revisions.