COVID and governments’ responses to it had a major impact on everyone’s lives. One such program was the billions of federal tax dollars given to Tennessee schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). While it was intended to address learning loss and the safe return to in-person learning following COVID, a substantial amount of the money spent had nothing to do with the stated goal. Last year, Beacon published a report showing how millions of dollars was spent or budgeted on non-school related items, such as administrator travel, retractable bleachers, and walk-in coolers. This year, it was uncovered that some school districts chose to disregard their internal policies around how to appropriate relief funds, with unauthorized bonuses going to positions that have nothing to do with teaching children, such as directors and administrators. However, it’s important for us to not only look backward but also to look forward in order to prevent even more government waste. Even with all the spending that wasn’t related to education, there is still (a lot of) relief money that has yet to be spent. In fact, less than 62 percent of the $3.5 billion given throughout the pandemic to Tennessee school districts was spent as of September 2023. These billions are supposed to go towards helping students whose learning was severely disrupted by the pandemic, but it seems more of the focus was on districts’ wishlists and bonuses. These spending habits will be felt locally as the federal funds are set to expire in 2024.
For districts that have hired and grown their payroll with temporary relief funds, despite enrollment declines, taxpayers will likely be called on to continue to fund them at similar levels once federal relief expires. This could possibly lead to local tax increases. How much will Tennessee taxpayers be forced to backfill federal relief funds? That is the multi-million dollar question.
SOLUTION: While just over half of the relief funds have already been spent, Tennessee policymakers can play a role in making past and future ESSER spending more accessible with live, online information like dozens of other states already do. While taxpayers should be upset with how some of this money was spent, a legislative committee should look at ESSER spending to gather more data on how much of these relief funds were really spent on education-related purposes and if there was a significant impact on student achievement.
Brandon Shields, “Commissioners raise concerns about JMCSS budget, spending.” Jackson Post. May 17, 2023.
Erin McCollough, “Dickson County audit finds improper pay for director of schools, lack of internal controls for county clerk.” WKRN. January 24, 2023. https://www.wkrn.com/news/local-news/dickson-county-audit-finds-improper-pay-for-director-of-schools-lack-of-internal-controls-for-county-clerk/.
Jackie DelPilar, “Audit finds $29k in unauthorized purchases for Cheatham County Schools.” Fox 17. January 17, 2023.
Jon Styf, “Audit finds Dyer County Schools gave unauthorized bonuses to administrators.” The Center Square. January 3, 2023. https://www.thecentersquare.com/tennessee/article_52406822-8b7c-11ed-97ea-0b78d60594b2.html.
“Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER 1.0) Funding Summary.” Tennessee Department of Education. December 14, 2022. https://eplan.tn.gov/DocumentLibrary/ViewDocument.aspx?DocumentKey=2001183.
Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER 2.0) Funding Summary.” Tennessee Department of Education. September 13, 2023. https://eplan.tn.gov/DocumentLibrary/ViewDocument.aspx?DocumentKey=2144969&inline=true
Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER 3.0) Funding Summary.” Tennessee Department of Education. September 13, 2023. https://eplan.tn.gov/DocumentLibrary/ViewDocument.aspx?DocumentKey=2144968&inline=true
Linda Jacobson and Asher Lehrer-Small, “$190B Later, Reason to Worry Relief Funds Won’t Curb COVID’s Academic Crisis.” The 74 Million. July 18, 2023. https://www.the74million.org/article/190b-later-reason-to-worry-relief-funds-wont-curb-covids-academic-crisis/.