Florida Gets Wrong About Federal COVID Funds; schools need money, says Pasco

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Pasco County school officials are pushing back state leaders who say districts have no use for federal pandemic relief funds authorized by Congress earlier this year.

The problem is the district’s $ 127 million share of the US bailout, the third installment of federal money allocated by Congress to help schools across the country recover from the pandemic. Florida’s share is $ 2.3 billion, and the state is the only one in the country not asking for funds.

After receiving a letter from the U.S. Department of Education on Monday inquiring about the missing application, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was in no rush to submit an application.

“No district has expressed a need for funding that cannot be met with the resources currently available,” its press secretary said in a statement.

Related: Florida did not ask for billions in federal aid from schools

The statement came two weeks after House of States leaders made a statement presentation suggesting that districts did not need a third inflow of federal money because they weren’t close to spending the money made available in the first two installments. According to House documents, Pasco County had not spent all of its second-round funding as of September 17, when House staff collected their data.

To illustrate this point, House PreK-12 Appropriations President Rep. Randy Fine pointed to a $ 112 million “non-registration assistance allowance” that he enshrined in law to assist districts. to find and help the children who were supposed to attend but who never showed up. Only $ 4,000 had been spent statewide, he said at the time, questioning the value of giving more to districts when they weren’t using what was on offer.

Olga Swinson, Pasco District Finance Director, rejected the explanation presented by state officials.

“We just haven’t received any information from the Florida Department of Education,” she said at a school board workshop Tuesday.

Using the example of non-registration assistance, she explained that Pasco had a plan to spend the entire $ 2.3 million from her, including hiring social service coordinators and d teaching assistants to find and support missing students.

“We have already spent the equivalent of three months of money,” she said, noting that staff are not paid in a lump sum.

Meanwhile, she added, the state did not approve the spending until September 27, nearly a month after the district’s request and two weeks after Fine’s criticism.

The situation was similar for other existing federal money pots, Swinson said. Like other school districts, Pasco has been reluctant to commit too much to spending – whether it’s after-school programs, extra helpers and tutors, or new program memberships – without the approval of the State.

She highlighted the district’s efforts to improve the availability of technology for students. Its plan to purchase 10,284 computers to support distance learning and increase student engagement cost $ 2.19 million.

“We bought the computers. We actually paid for them, ”she said. “We haven’t been reimbursed yet.

The state approved this expense on September 28.

Board members reviewed the district administration’s still unapproved plan for the use of second-round funding through 2023. It included items such as classroom aides for each kindergarten class, additional assistants to clean the dining rooms; and additional pay for hard-to-find bus drivers and substitute teachers.

They asked to move these ideas forward, and Superintendent Kurt Browning noted that Congress had allocated the $ 2.3 billion to Florida. He said the district wanted to use its part to continue tutoring, mental health services and other programs that help tackle issues faced by students over the past two years.

“Florida has to take the money first,” said vice-chairman Cynthia Armstrong.

Wayne Bertsch, the district government liaison, drew attention to DeSantis’ remarks about not seeking funding because districts have shown no need for it. This sparked the board members, who suggested that the districts were in a place created by the state, and not by local school leaders.

They noted that much seemed to depend on the ongoing political feud between DeSantis and President Joe Biden over masks, immigration and several other issues.

“We all know how good this relationship is going,” Armstrong said, sounding skeptical about the arrival of the $ 127 million, whatever the plans and needs.

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