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Fla. education commissioner reveals schools districts have $500 million in unspent CARES Act dollars

Nearly $700 million awarded to Fla. schools in August
Posted at 4:52 PM, Dec 04, 2020

Earlier this week, Florida’s education boss revealed that schools still have hundreds of millions of dollars in CARES Act money to spend.

During a press conference with the Governor earlier this week, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran disclosed that school districts have yet to spend a half-a-billion dollars in federal CARES Act funding it received.

“We still have almost $500 million in unspent CARES Act funds for the districts,” Commissioner Corcoran said, shortly after the Governor announced he would be keeping both the brick and mortar option as well as e-learning option for students in the spring, despite rising COVID case numbers.

The Commissioner’s announcement about unused money got our attention since districts were awarded the money at the beginning of the school year. A closer look shows, collectively, Florida’s school districts have spent a fraction of the nearly $700 million allocated to them for products, services and people needed to educate students in the state amid an ongoing health crisis.

A spreadsheet provided to us by the Florida Department of Education shows that nearly all school districts in the state have spent less than half its allotted dollars. The majority of school districts have yet to spend at least 75% of its CARES Act funds with some smaller districts not spending one dime, according to data provided to us by the state.

But when asked why it appears school districts are slow to spend the money, Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning said, “it appears that way but I will assure you that we are not.”

This week, Browning found himself defending his district’s spending habits, or lack thereof during a phone meeting with the Florida Department of Education. Of the $14.6 million in CARES Act money awarded to Pasco County Schools, the state shows the district has only withdrawn $2.5 million of it as of Nov. 25.

“They’re saying you’ve got to spend the money, you’ve got to spend the money and we’re going, well we are spending that money,” Browning explained.

Instead, the problem Browning said is a rule that requires districts to front the money, spend it and only then ask the state for reimbursements.

Browning said it becomes challenging when districts are using the CARES Act dollars to fund salaries but can’t be reimbursed until payroll for each period is completed. Browning gave another example of laptops and computers the district purchased but were on backorder. As a result, the district can’t get reimbursed from its CARES funding until the items are delivered and paid for by the district.

“Why wouldn’t you just give us the $14.6 million upfront, it’s not like we’re going to go to Tahiti on this,” he said.

In addition, he said school districts were required to submit spending plans before the money was even awarded. The district has until the end of 2022 to spend its CARES Act money.

In Lee County, according to state records, the district has spent less than 10% of its $22 million, but a school spokesperson said they are waiting for the state to reimburse the district another $3.5 million.

Same in Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest school district awarded the highest cash flow of CARES Act dollars. On paper, the district has withdrawn less than 1% of its $120 million in funding. According to a district spokesperson, another $20 million is currently in the reimbursement pipeline.

Only a handful of school districts have spent most of their allotted funds, according to state records. To date, the Charlotte County school district, a small district awarded a total of just over $3 million in CARES Act dollars, has spent 70% of it, the largest percentage of any school district.

“The less you have the faster it goes, there’s no question about it,” said district spokesperson Mike Riley who added. “We had a plan so there was really no reason to sit [on the money].”

Other districts that appear to be slow spenders point to shifting priorities and changes in other funding for the delays in spending.

Still, Superintendent Browning remains concerned about what looks like shy spending on paper could cost schools in the long run during the upcoming legislative session when lawmakers approve education budgets.

“Legislators are looking at the amount of money that isn’t being spent yet. They’re going to say, well you have half a billion dollars sitting here, why do you need more money? On paper, it appears like that but in reality, it’s been spent. We’re just waiting for payroll to be filled and purchase orders to be complete," he said.