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More than half of the federal stimulus money allocated to Louisiana public schools last year remains unspent nine months after it was allocated.  

More than half of the $287 million in federal stimulus money for Louisiana public schools to help defray pandemic expenses remains unspent nine months after it was allocated.

"The wheels of a big system sometimes move slowly," said Wes Watts, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish school district.

The money is supposed to help with the costs of computers, personal protective equipment, summer school and other expenses. It was approved by the U.S. Congress on March 27, 2020, and started going to districts in late April.

But $146 million of the allocation remains unspent, according to the state Department of Education.

State officials this week are sending messages to local superintendents, directors of federal programs and business managers urging them not to delay spending the money, and how it can be used.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said the delay stems in part from earlier concerns among local officials. "They were cautious on whether they would have to carry it into next year as well," Brumley said.

"They did not know that they would be getting additional dollars," he added.

"So, they were thinking about how could they spread this out if they had to go into (2021)," Brumley said.

But now officials are faced with sort of an embarrassment of riches.

Louisiana landed another $1.1 billion in federal aid — 13th most in the nation — when Congress approved its second stimulus plan on Dec. 27. However, the state is not sending out those dollars for now.

Districts will be able to spend 50% of their allocation starting in June and the other half starting in January 2022.

Public school classrooms were closed in March 2020 during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

School leaders were forced to rely on distance learning for the rest of the school year, with mixed results amid a shortage of computers and other devices and gaps in student access to the internet.

Today, about 60% of students are getting in-person instruction, with the rest relying on virtual learning or a combination of virtual and in-person classes.

Watts said how quickly districts have spent the first round of federal aid depends on their financial outlooks.

The West Baton Rouge Parish School District has spent most of its roughly $900,000 in federal aid to ensure all of its 4,000 students have computers or other devices.

"The struggle with it is you can only use it for certain things," Watts said. "Maybe they need teachers and you can't spend it on that."

Watts also said that, in some cases, districts have committed their share of federal stimulus money but it has not been spent.

"You are planning and implementing and payment does not happen until later," he said.

Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said local superintendents were reluctant to spend all the aid at once because of concerns about future needs. "Now with this second stimulus, you don't have to have a cushion because you are going to get a whole lot more," Faulk said.

Some of Louisiana's 69 school districts can expect three times what they got in the first round when the second round of aid — $1.1 billion — is made available.

Jim Garvey, the longest-serving member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said local school leaders are looking at two or three years of extra expenses because of the pandemic.

"In particular, the learning loss that happened or is currently happening during the last 12 months or 10 months will happen until the virus is under control," Garvey said. "And the remediation of that learning loss is not going to happen in six months."

Half of the second round of federal aid is set to go to districts in March along with guidance on how it can be used. Local districts will start crafting budgets for the money in April. State officials will review those plans in May and the money will be available for spending in June.

Brumley said the priority for federal aid will be to ensure schools can offer in-person instruction.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.