Home > Essays > Boatload of Money Coming for Vermont Schools Poses Unique Challenge: How to Spend a Boatload of Money

Boatload of Money Coming for Vermont Schools Poses Unique Challenge: How to Spend a Boatload of Money

April 16, 2021

I served as a public school superintendent for 29 years and for every single one of those years in the five districts I led in five different states there was one constant problem no matter whether the district was affluent or impoverished: we never had the money we needed to do the work needed in the classroom or to maintain or upgrade the buildings we had.

Our local newspaper today reprinted Lola Duffort’s article “Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity” from the Vermont Digger, a statewide blog that features in-depth articles on issues that are unique to that state. The headline is wrong: this is not even a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity: it is akin to the appearance of an undiscovered comet!  And, as Ms. Duffort notes, it poses some VERY tough decision making by local school boards. In all, Vermont is receiving $566,000,000 to address facilities issues and instructional deficiencies related COVID— which is more than they will need for that. As Ms. Duffort writes:

“Everyone’s sort of recognizing that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Jill Briggs Campbell, Covid-19 federal emergency management funds manager at the Agency of Education.

Federal aid is coming to schools through several streams, and Vermont largely paid for the upfront costs of reopening schools by using $103 million from the $1.25 billion pot of money Vermont received in March 2020 from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. States were given wide latitude about how to use those dollars on their pandemic response, but a narrow window of time within which to spend it (originally, the end of last year.)

But the money spent on reopening barely touches the dollars that Congress specifically earmarked for schools. The most significant bucket of cash specifically tagged for the pre-K-12 system is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which was created in last spring’s CARES Act.

The best news for school districts is that 90% of the discretionary funds are going directly to school districts through the Title One funding formula. This means that the neediest schools will get the most funding— and we are talking about slugs of money that can be spent for a broad range to issues like:

  • Special education services

  • Activities to address the unique needs of high-risk student populations
  • Remote learning and education technology
  • Summer and after-school programming
  • Learning loss and recovery services
  • Mental health supports
  • Some school facility updates and repairs, including indoor air quality improvements

But across the Connecticut River, things are a little different in New Hampshire where the Attorney General joined 12 of his colleagues in other states in a lawsuit that seeks to use this “once in a lifetime” windfall to reduce taxes… because, presumably, cutting taxes will make folks more happy than using these funds to create jobs, improve the state’s infrastructure, and make the state more livable. Of course at this point, New Hampshire hasn’t indicated which American Rescue Funds they will redirect for the purpose of lowering taxes. From what I understand, they cannot get their hands on funds specifically earmarked for town and city governments and school districts. But maybe instead of fixing state highways, restoring some of the 7,000 jobs they cut, or improving the office spaces available to state employees, or upgrading State Parks and recreation venues the state can reduce meal taxes or corporate taxes, or the long list of nuisance fees that are charged to avoid any form of broad based taxes in the State.

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