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As COVID relief funds dry up, two city school districts face cuts

A glass window announces the entrance to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The window reflects the surrounding city.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Metropolitan School District's headquarters located Downtown. The school district plans to make cuts at its central office as COVID relief funds dry up.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, schools across the state have received millions of dollars in federal aid through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Programs, or ESSER.

The money helped schools do things like purchase protective equipment, put on summer programming to make up for pandemic learning loss and hire mental health professionals and counselors.

But that money is about to run out, leaving schools to figure out what to do without it.

Two of the largest districts in the state, the Cleveland Municipal School District and Cincinnati Public Schools, each received hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three years.

Education reporters Zack Carreon from WVXU in Cincinnati and Conor Morris from Ideastream Public Media in Cleveland joined the Ohio Newsroom to explain how those districts used their ESSER funds and what they plan to do without them.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On how Cincinnati Public Schools spent its ESSER allocation

Carreon: Cincinnati Public Schools spent [ESSER funds] largely on staff. During the pandemic, the district really tried to invest in reading and math specialists, as well as mental health specialists and counselors, to help guide students through some of the learning loss they experienced during remote learning. The district also invested in English as a second language instructors, since the population of students who don't speak English within the school district is growing each year.

A teacher bends over a table where a group of four young students are drawing pictures.
Zack Carreon
A teacher works with a group of students at Oyler School, part of Cincinnati Public Schools.

The problem that's creating now is Cincinnati Public Schools don't want to eliminate staff. They now want to keep [staff members hired with ESSER funds] and they’re looking to cut elsewhere because of that.

On how Cleveland Municipal Schools compare

Morris: Cleveland Municipal Schools had the largest tranche of money in Ohio because [the allocation], in part, is based on the number of kids living in poverty. The district spent its money on heating and cooling air flow upgrades at schools, for health reasons. They bought laptops so that they could move to a 1:1 device per student model so they could do online learning. There were Wi-Fi hotspots they bought to help families log in. They boosted support services. There's now a nurse in each school. And they boosted support for after-school programming and summer programming pretty significantly. That was their main gambit to try to catch students up.

[Like Cincinnati Public schools, Cleveland Municipal Schools used some of this money to pay for staff salaries.] Advocates say that was needed to relieve the burden on the budget from spending on these programs. But other folks are saying, ‘If you knew this was one-time money and it's going to end, then how were we going to pay for the salaries?’

On the temporary nature of ESSER funds and impending cuts

MORRIS: Cleveland Municipal Schools have a lot of cuts planned — $130 million called for in the next two years. And this is coming at a time when a lot of districts were already forecasting they probably would need to go back to voters for a levy in the near future.

CMS is cutting support for around 93 afterschool programs, [many of which] were started with this money. And there will be some cuts at the central office, too. They're starting with 25 positions, but it's going to be a lot more severe in a second phase down the road. That could mean a lot of people losing their jobs. The district has said they don't want these cuts to hit the classroom, so they're trying to avoid that. But, we're going to have to see how that looks down the road.

Bowling Green High School's hallways are lined with tan lockers and decorations of school pride.
Kendall Crawford
The Ohio Newsroom
Hallways inside the Bowling Green High School are lined with tan lockers and decorations of school pride.

CARREON: Certainly some people feel that [Cincinnati Public Schools] should have been better prepared for a situation like this. One of the areas they're looking to cut is in transportation. Moving into next year, they're looking to make cuts and consolidate some bus routes. They're also looking into increasing the walk radius, so students that live a mile and a half from school may have to walk.

Some people feel like there is some mismanagement there. But, others feel like what they are investing in right now is worth keeping.

On the bigger picture

MORRIS: The other context here is that a lot of school districts are seeing declining enrollment. [That’s the case in Cleveland,] which has seen a pretty significant decline over the years, and in Akron too. They're redistricting and closing a couple schools, shifting where students go to school to save money. So that also is tied up in this conversation as well. This loss of [ESSER funds] and expenses rising and enrollment declining, it's all related.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.