Allowable spending on COVID funds for schools change after money already spent

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 4:24 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - North Dakota schools have nearly $400 million left to spend from federal COVID relief. Similarly to other COVID money, schools don’t know what the rules are for spending it, and some of the qualifications have changed after the money has been spent. So, they’re holding back plans, but deadlines are looming.

The Department of Public Instruction has received more than $428 million from Washington, D.C., through COVID relief.

The money was given in three tranches over the past two years, and each of these portions have different spending deadlines. And the rules keep changing even after it’s already been spent.

Of the more than $428 million given to North Dakota schools, less than $32 million of it has been requested by schools. That leaves more than 92% remaining.

Part of the reason the amount is still so large is that the money is only on reimbursements. So, schools have to spend it before the money can go out. And that’s causing some problems.

”Some of the rules and guidance that originally was communicated to states, and then states subsequently communicated to our local school districts have changed. We’re doing our best to communicate those with our school districts,” said State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.

Schools could spend the special COVID funds to pay staff and other uses. This opens the school’s normal budget for other non-COVID items. And since they would come out of the school’s normal budget, they can be spent on whatever they want.

”I have very strong personal opinions about some of the choices that have been made. Paying for ice for hockey rinks to me is not a priority at a time like this,” said Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck.

According to DPI, big-ticket items include buying curriculum and funding summer school. The largest amount, 32% of the second tranche is expected to be used on hiring staff.

”Whether it be contract or additional (full time employees), whatever that might be, we are in triage at this point,” said Baesler.

Baesler added she has been in coordination with schools over the requests and giving guidance on the spending.

The Department of Public Instruction is holding the funds in accounts for the schools, but they can’t deny a school’s use of the money.

Ultimately, it’s the federal government and auditors who will decide what spending was appropriate, and how much should be returned.

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