After spending $51 million, Austin ISD is still awaiting some CARES Act funding

Education

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that Austin ISD had not received any CARES Act funding. This was based on statements made by district officials. This story has been amended to include new financial information provided by the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Department of Emergency Management.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Independent School District administrators are worried about recovering some of the $50 million they spent on emergency pandemic-related needs.

Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde told the Board of Trustees on Monday the district hasn’t received any CARES Act funding from the Texas Education Agency yet, however, TEA officials say the district has received more than $12.1 million through the state’s hold harmless provision for school funding.

“This is an area where we could us a lot of help with community members voicing their concern, that schools are not getting their fair share of reimbursements,” Elizalde told the trustees.

When you add up employee wages, meals and technology delivery, protective equipment, deep cleaning and distance learning platforms, the district has spent $51.2 million since March. Chief Business Officer Larry Throm said the district paid out $14.5 million to classified employees for overtime and hazard pay for the months of March through June alone.

Those are workers like Jessica Garza, the Food Service Manager at Burnet Middle School. When all of the students and teachers were asked to remain home beginning in March, Garza led her team, supplying daily meals to around 300 families each day.

“It was so scary, because the pandemic had just started. We didn’t know anything about the virus, and we were still having to serve the public,” Garza said. “We were feeding so many families. So, so many families.”

The hazard pay was also supplied to transportation officials and other employees whose responsibilities were essential to district functioning while schools were closed. Throm said not only was every dollar accounted for, it was also essential.

“We needed to spend this money and our board has approved these expenditures. They trust us to go forth and continue to make these types of expenditures,” Throm said.

Throm said this is a financial burden all educators in Texas are currently facing. Each district is racing with one another to recover that money. But it’s a delicate process, with only a handful of funding sources available, which have tight deadlines and strict conditions.

AISD has applied to the Texas Education Agency for help through the CARES Act and the Coronavirus Relief Fund. In both of these cases, expenses must have occurred between a certain timeline, and applications were expected to be submitted earlier this year.

In most cases, only 75% of the expenditures are eligible for reimbursement, and those items differ depending on which entity is providing the funds. And just because a district is entitled to a 75% recovery, doesn’t mean it will receive all 75% back. That could depend on how many other schools districts also apply.

The Texas Education Agency told KXAN that 1,145 Texas School Districts have applied to receive CARES Act funding. 1,129 have already received their awards, meaning AISD is one of the 16 who still hasn’t. The TEA said their reimbursement will come “soon.”

And the $51.2 million AISD has spent on COVID-related expenses is just a drop in a rather large bucket of expenditures the TEA is sorting through. A TEA official said Texas school districts have reported spending $575,121,150 in CARES Act eligible expenditures (i.e. continuous learning, payroll, PPE, disinfection) and $20,837,641 in Coronavirus Relief Fund eligible expenditures (i.e. distance learning, technological improvements).

That’s nearly $600 million in COVID-19 related expenses reported to the Texas Education Agency from all across the state.

The Texas Education Agency said Austin ISD was eligible to apply for $31.7 million, of which they requested $28.5 million and have received $12.1 million, to date.

The district was awarded 20% of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund in July and the full grant in late August. As of Thursday, AISD has received more than $10 million of the ESSER grant.

Of the Coronavirus Relief Funds, the TEA says it awarded Austin ISD $1.9 million to cover half the cost of the 9,000 Chromebooks and 10,000 mobile hotspots it purchased in bulk.

The Texas Department of Emergency Management has also shared that it is waiting for Austin ISD to submit invoices and proof of payment for the $4.9 million requested through the Coronavirus Relief Fund Reimbursement Program.

Both Elizalde and Throm are encouraging community members to speak up to their local and state legislators to insist they prioritize education funding in the upcoming legislative session.

“I can say with certainty that during the five months the legislature is in session, public school education advocates will go march on the legislature. That’s how we do things in America,” Throm said.

While nothing is finalized yet, AISD is making decisions based on a conservative estimate that it’ll recover only 13.4 million of the 51.2 million spent so far. And the district is still buying. School officials say the latest expense is more plexiglass barriers for teachers and students to use in the spring.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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