Federal funding could provide relief in some areas to school system

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An influx of federal money into Knox County Schools to help with COVID-19 relief efforts may help the school system indirectly in several areas not related to the pandemic, the school system’s chief financial officer said.

““They can pay for initiatives that we’d have to put in the general fund like virtual learning and other things,” said Ron McPherson, Knox County Schools’ chief financial officer.

McPherson spoke to the Knox County Commission Monday night about funds received from ESSER 2.0 and also spoke briefly about ESSER 3.0.

The two financial packages come from the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund, also known as “ESSER,” which were part of the federal government’s last two COVID relief packages.

The state announced last week that from ESSER 3.0, Knox County would receive $114 million.

The county also received tens of millions of dollars during the last relief bill.

So County Commissioners asked the question Monday, “where does the money go?”

It’s not simple.

Both relief packages have restricted uses and the federal government has said it can only be used to address specific needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There has to be a rational way we spend these funds,” McPherson said..”The state has been pretty strict about it and the feds have been definitely strict about it.”

The school system has had some talks about using the funds to address learning gaps and some other talks about infrastructure, he said.

As far as capital projects, the money can only be used on things that address COVID. But, there’s questions on what that entails.

For Knox County, they are looking at air quality control measures in some schools, which would mean improving HVAC systems, or also perhaps expansion of some classrooms.

Any of those measures, though, would have to be approved by the state.

As far as learning gaps, the school system plans to address that in the 2021-2022 fiscal year budget, McPherson said.

“The learning gaps, as we’re crafting the general purpose budget, we are addressing those in the general purpose budget, because those are presumably ongoing needs we will have to address as we go along,” he said.

The year proved unusual in any stretch of the imagination. A year ago, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee asked that schools shut down as the pandemic first erupted. Schools never resumed for the 2019-2020 school year.

As school started for this school year, school systems experimented with virtual learning.

The first semester Knox County Schools had around 19,000 students online and 15,000 students the second semester.

McPherson said it was like having two schools systems in one. There were other problems.

“We had to do this so quickly, we had a number of teachers essentially teaching on their planning period,” McPherson said.

The funds that come from ESSER 2.0 do not have to be spent until 2023 and school officials said the money from ESSER 3.0 may stretch until 2024.

With the new rounds of money, it could mean being able to pay for things that would usually have to be put in the general purpose budget, he said. For example, the plan to leverage dollars this year for virtual school, learning, textbooks and one-on-one laptops.

“We wanted to be very strategic on how we used these dollars, we didn’t want to leave any money on the table,” McPherson said..” But it does provide some breathing room.”