A key Florida legislator aired fresh concerns on Wednesday that school districts still have nearly $416 million in unspent federal cash set aside for them to weather the pandemic.
The numbers: Florida schools landed a combined $693.2 million from the CARES Act, funding from Congress to be used on a wide range of needs tied to Covid-19 such as protective gear, technology, and cleaning supplies. As of last week, some $277.2 million of that cash had been spent by school districts, leaving nearly $416 million, or 60 percent, of the funding still available, according to data presented to lawmakers by the Department of Education.
Crucial context: Relief from the CARES Act is critical to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to rebuild Florida’s economy from the coronavirus pandemic, but the level of funding still available for education from the first stimulus package is starting to draw criticism from the Legislature.
During the Wednesday hearing, state Rep. Randy Fine, the House’s K-12 budget writer, took aim at the “avalanche” of money school districts — and DOE — are sitting on. Given the potential influx of more money from a Democratic-controlled Congress, the Melbourne Beach Republican said he’s concerned about pouring more cash into districts that haven’t demonstrated they know how to make use of it and pledged to conduct a dive deeper of the spending.
“Our schools have been drowning in federal funding,” Fine said. “Covid, it turns out, is the greatest booster for K-12 education in the history of public education.”
Background: DeSantis is pushing for increasing education spending by $285.5 million, funneling the new cash into priorities such as raising teacher salaries and improving student mental health programs in a $22.8 billion K-12 budget proposal released last month. The Republican governor credited federal Covid-19 aid as a key factor behind his education budget appearing significantly rosier than anticipated, but his spending plan also accounts for Florida enrolling nearly 50,000 fewer students next school year, highlighting how tracking student counts will be a critical issue for the Legislature in 2021.
Spending gap: Lawmakers on the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee were quick to note the disparity between how much funding districts have disbursed locally. For example, Sarasota County has spent 89 percent of its share of CARES Act cash while counties such as Lee and Wakulla have only spent 10 percent, the state data shows.
DOE defended how districts are spending the stimulus aid, with officials testifying that many schools are budgeting the money month-to-month. Schools are putting the cash toward hiring more nurses, or buying monthly orders of cleaning supplies, Alex Kelly, the chief of staff to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, told the panel.
“Those funds are meant to last them potentially up through September 2022,” Kelly said. “Most school districts … are using those funds on a scheduled basis throughout the school year.”
On top of the money specifically set aside for school districts, the Department of Education also has a deep pocket of agency funds — $70.8 million — still on the table. DOE has spent $6.2 million of the $77 million available, only about 8 percent, the data shows.
Fine poked holes in the agency’s CARES Act spending plan, which includes $8 million for free SAT/ACT testing, $5 million for reading coaches and $20 million to cement the state’s new reading curriculum.
“The vast majority of these things sound like good ideas that aren’t necessarily Covid response ideas,” Fine said.
What’s next: Fine’s committee is expected to host five local school superintendents next week to detail how they are spending stimulus money.
Florida schools are slated to receive $2.8 billion in the second round of federal aid flowing to states in the weeks to come.