LPS officials were investigating the use of federal aid money for scholarships but say the state discouraged it | education
Lincoln Public Schools last year explored the possibility of using its federal COVID-19 relief dollars for general teacher bonuses, but said the Nebraska Department of Education advised scholarships were not an acceptable use of the funds.
LPS asked the state for advice in May 2021 whether it could allocate a portion of the $61.4 million it received in the state’s third wave of coronavirus relief to incentive payments used by school districts to recruit staff to retain and hire during the ongoing teaching activity.
The advice the district received said all scholarships would have to be tied to “extra hours worked due to COVID, but a blanket ‘bonus’ would not be okay,” according to the communication between the state Department of Education and LPS.
That’s because the U.S. Department of Education does not generally consider “bonuses, merit, or similar expenses” to be acceptable uses of funding unless they are related to COVID-19-related disruptions or closures, the guidance said .
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The American Rescue Plan Act, which went into effect in March 2021, included $122 billion for a third edition of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
Advice on eligible use of funds raised questions about how Omaha Public Schools – which saw a mass exodus of teachers this summer – could use their ESSER funds on scholarships.
OPS is giving full-time employees $4,500 a year and part-time employees $2,250 a year over the next two school years, the Omaha World-Herald reported. The money would be distributed in three installments over the course of the year.
The state recently approved the first year of grants, which will come from OPS’ ESSER dollar pool.
Elkhorn Public Schools and Westside Community Schools in Omaha are also progressing with staff bonuses, but using additional funds that districts received due to accounting errors by the Douglas County Treasurer’s Office.
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Nebraska Department of Education spokesman David Jespersen said the apparent discrepancy in the guidance was partly due to semantics.
The first wave of ESSER funds, approved in March 2020, was specifically tied to the reopening of schools, while additional funds were approved in December to address learning losses and mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
The third wave could be used for a variety of purposes, from investing in human resources to expanding summer and after-school programming. Jespersen said that grants or similar are “an appropriate and acceptable use” of that money as long as it is linked to teacher recruitment or retention, which could be interpreted as relating to the pandemic.
LPS officials claim it would be difficult to prove it existed here because the district didn’t have the same staffing problems as Omaha Metro districts.
“Although we had some staffing challenges, it would again be open to interpretation as to whether we would have a staffing crisis,” said Associate Superintendent for Instruction Matt Larson. “We don’t think we have a certified staffing crisis.”
If LPS were to reconsider grants, it would have to change its ESSER dollar spending plan and take it past the state once again, but officials say they’ve received mixed signals.
“At this time, we have received no clear direction from the Nebraska Department of Education that the use of ESSER funds to pay employee bonuses or grants would be reimbursed or approved,” LPS Superintendent Paul Gausman said in a statement to the Journal Star.
That doesn’t mean the funds haven’t been used to compensate teachers, Larson said.
LPS has paid bonuses to teachers who participate in additional planning time, professional development and after-school tutoring to catch up with students who have fallen behind during the pandemic. The district also expanded summer school offerings and increased salaries for teachers covering additional classes.
Officials also considered the idea of using the funding to extend the school day, but teachers were largely opposed.
Deb Rasmussen, president of the Lincoln Education Association, commended the district for at least exploring the idea of scholarships. She agreed it would be difficult for the district to prove the grants were for COVID-related reasons.
“It’s not necessarily pandemic-related recruitment challenges,” she said. “There is a nationwide teacher shortage that has been going on for years.”
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