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Fla. schools still have hundreds of millions to spend in CARES Act money, billions more are coming

Lawmaker questions how schools are spending CARES Act funding
Posted at 3:57 PM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 17:54:41-05

Florida schools are drowning in money. At least that’s according to Republican Florida Representative Randy Fine who represents Brevard County.

“COVID, it turns out, is the greatest booster in K-12 education in the history of public education,” Fine said during a recent school appropriations committee meeting in Tallahassee.

According to Florida’s Department of Education, the numbers show districts have so much COVID-related cash, they have yet to spend it all.

Of nearly the $700 million in federal CARES Act money Florida schools received over the summer to help pay for COVID-related costs, districts have spent, on average, about 40% of their allotted amounts. Some districts have spent less than 20%.

Pasco County schools still have nearly 80% of its $14.5 million to spend, according to the state.

“I think the numbers you’re talking about are accurate but it completely leaves out the perspective,” said district spokesperson Steve Hegarty.

Hegarty said the rest of the money is spoken for, it’s just not spent yet or the district is still waiting for state reimbursements.

Pasco’s school CARES Act spending includes $1.4 million allocated to charter schools and private schools and $4 million earmarked for salaries of positions resulting from the pandemic, including nurses. Millions are also paying for ongoing PPE and sanitizing efforts.

“People are going to expect that we continue to clean like we’ve never cleaned before. That we’re going to clean the air filters like they’ve never been done before. So we’re going to continue to do that,” he said.

Cleaning is eating up much of the money in Collier County too where the school district still has $6.5 million of its CARES Act dollars to spend.

“You’re not going to need all your PPE all in one time, you’re not going to be sanitizing the schools all in the same day so we had it planned out over the two years,” said Siobhan Fox, Assistant Superintendent of Financial Services.

Larger school districts have larger pots to still spend. The Miami-Dade County school district still has nearly 70% of its $119 million in CARES Act money to spend. According to a district spokesperson, all of the money will be spent by the end of the fiscal year.

In Broward County, nearly $49 million remains from its allotted $62 million. The district plans to obligate all the money by the end of June 2021.

School districts have until September 2022 to spend the first round of CARES Act dollars.

During the same appropriations meeting, Fine questioned why the state was letting some districts use COVID-cash on reading programs, student progress monitoring and academic testing.

In response, Florida Department of Education Chief of Staff Alex Kelly said some of those initiatives were either halted due to the pandemic or, in the case of testing costs, some families have been economically impacted by the pandemic so funding for tests including the ACT and SAT have helped families.

Fine, who chairs the PK-12 Appropriations Committee, is concerned schools don’t have enough COVID-related expenses to spend all the money they have and more money is on the way. The second round of federal CARES Act dollars is earmarked for Florida school districts at the tune of $2.8 billion.

“It’s crazy and COVID should not be a cash extravaganza for anyone,” Fine said.

As a result, Fine is considering using some of this additional federal CARES Act money to supplant additional state education dollars. With tax revenues down due to the pandemic, the state remains in a budgetary crisis, he said with cuts to other programs a likely reality.

“We spend a lot of money on education. I don’t think there’s a limitless amount,” he said.