One of Mineral Wells' initial plans to remediate lost learning due to COVID-19 is to spend about $600,000 on summer extended learning for the next three summers, MWISD Superintendent John Kuhn said.
That funding will come out of the approximate $7.7 million the district is expected to receive through the state's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. All funding must be expended by September 2024.
Aside from the summer programs, the district also plans to have Reading Academies to help lower elementary teachers sharpen their delivery of literacy instruction to accelerate students' command of language.
"Around $225,000 will be allocated to technology purchases and upgrades to facilitate 21st century learning districtwide. Another $500,000 is being set aside for the purchase of instructional materials," Kuhn said. "The remaining funds — and the lion’s share of the $7.7 million — will be split into two pots."
The first pot will go for class-size reduction, which campus and district leadership has identified as the "most bang for the buck" in terms of accelerating student learning from these dollars.
MWISD will also be adding three new full-time teachers at the Houston Elementary campus, five new full-time teachers at Travis Elementary, one new full-time classroom teacher at the junior high and one new full-time teacher at the high school.
"These personnel allocations were determined by analyzing our student-teacher ratios at each campus in comparison to average student-teacher ratios around the state, as found on the 2019-2020 TAPR report from TEA," Kuhn said.
In late April, state leaders announced the release of $11.2 billion in new federal funding to help public schools address student learning loss and costs incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is part of the American Rescue Plan, which was announced in January.
The ESSER funding grants come in three "pots." The U.S. Department of Education’s initial grant award notice to Texas makes immediately available two-thirds of the total federal appropriation to Texas under ESSER III, and, as a result, the Texas Education Agency is providing that same amount to Texas schools.
Altogether, ESSER I and ESSER II amount to roughly $6.8 billion in federal funding. The newly released ESSER III dwarfs both previous payments at $11.2 billion. While ESSER I was meant to help schools respond to COVID-19, ESSER II and III were meant to cover the costs of reopening and operating with new safeguards.
"We are well aware that teacher salaries and benefits are recurring expenses and that ESSER III is a one-time influx of funding," Kuhn said. "That’s where the second pot comes in. We will be taking certain allowable expenses that we typically pay for out of our general fund over the next three years and covering those with these federal grant funds.
"This is not only allowed under the terms of this grant but was explicitly recommended by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with superintendents on May 6."
Kuhn said by supplanting local spending with these one-time federal funds, the district will be able to hold in reserve funds to deal with the "fiscal cliff" in September 2024, when the ESSER III funds are gone but new teacher salaries are still in place.
"We will have the option to use the funds-held-in-reserve to keep those 15 new teachers (and the smaller class sizes they create) for up to three additional years, or to stair-step back down to our pre-ESSER staffing level over a period of time (by, for example, eliminating five positions each year), or to gradually get back to our current staffing level via attrition that occurs naturally across the next six years," Kuhn said. "If we are creative on which positions we attrit, we might even be able to keep our class sizes smaller permanently, even after the ESSER III funds are no longer available."
Kuhn commended the Texas legislature for its direction of the funding into classrooms, adding that he hopes the district can use the monies to pick up where it left off prior to pandemic.
"The whole focus of the group during the planning process was not 'let’s spend this money' but 'let’s make this count for our kids,'” he said. "MWISD has been making great progress on the academic performance of our students, as reflected by the 'B' grade our district earned on the TEA A-F grading system. It’s our hope that with this ESSER funding and our strategy for using those funds, we can pick up right where we were when COVID threw a wrench into things."