For all the problems the pandemic has created, it has also turned into a revenue source -- albeit a temporary one - for Rochester Public Schools.
Overall, the school district has been granted $38,477,619 in relief funding. To put that in perspective, it is equal to just under 9% of the district’s massive $430 million expenditure budget for 2021-22.
So what has the district done with the money?
According to John Carlson, RPS director of finance, the district has spent roughly $10.7 million of the relief funding thus far. He said the district has plans to spend another $3.7 million this year, leaving more than $24 million left to allocate.
“That means there are still a lot of decisions to be made going forward,” Carlson said via email.
The majority of the funding is available to the district through 2024.
Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel said there's several reasons the district hasn't specified yet where the rest of the funding will go. For one, he said he wanted to see some analysis about what kind of impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on students, especially in the areas of reading and math.
Another reason for the wait has been the amount of uncertainty in the pandemic since the Delta variant became more widely prevalent.
"I think, going forward, the remaining dollars will fall into three categories," Pekel said. "The first will be COVID mitigation. The second will be student academic, social and emotional supports because we have a lot of kids that are coming back from 18 months of not having in-person learning.... and then the third will be staff supports."
Although the district hasn't officially decided what to do with the rest of the money, some groups have started advocating for where they think it should go. In October, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht spoke about the growing shortage of paraprofessionals in Rochester and said the district should invest the relief funding in its educators.
Pekel clarified the district is not currently negotiating contracts with its paraprofessionals, and that that is the method through which the district would determine their pay.
The money spent so far has been spread over two years, starting in 2020.
It also has come through a number of different buckets. According to Carlson, the total allotment of $38.47 million represents 20 different funding sources.
“It’s not just one bucket of money with unrestricted uses,” Carlson said. “Everything has a name and a reason so it falls on us to make decisions and track it accordingly.”
Part of the funding has been spent making sure students had the equipment necessary to be able to do school from home. In September, 2020, the district spent a little more than a million dollars to purchase 4,500 Chrome computers.
The relief funding also has helped blunt the impact from the drop in enrollment the district experienced in 2020-21. That year, more than 600 students left the district for other options. School districts receive funding on a per-pupil basis, so a drop like that has serious financial implications.
The financial situation is another reason why the district hasn't allocated the rest of it's relief funding as of yet. In the coming months, administrators will be taking a new look at the financial projections and analyzing how the relief funding could help the situation.
"The last budget projection the (school) board got showed an 18 million deficit for next year," Pekel said. "The real moment of truth for me is once we have those financial projections in December, then we will really make a clear commitment to allocations within each of these three buckets."
The $10,785,555 million the district has spent so far can be broken down accordingly:
Salaries and wages
Supplies and materials