School buses
School buses. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut school districts have spent $981 million of a total $1.7 billion in federal pandemic relief funds meant to offset the costs of educational expenses like paying teachers and improving facilities, according to a Thursday update by the School + State Finance Project.

The group has tracked the federal support states have received and spent through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. The fund has been supported by three separate tranches of federal money, each with its own deadline to spend the dollars.

Connecticut has already spent 99% of the first portion, which was funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and comes with an extended April 1, 2024 deadline, according to the group.

The state has spent 84% of the second pot of money, funded by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, and has around $78.5 million left to spend before an extended March 31, 2025 deadline.

Meanwhile, the state has spent only 41% of the final tranche, funded by the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act. That leaves nearly $650 million for districts to spend before a deadline in early 2025 or March of 2026 if the state receives a federal extension.

According to the School + State Finance Project’s analysis, Connecticut’s spending from each pot of money is comparable to that of the nearby states of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.

The group has also sought to track how Connecticut districts have spent the funds and has found that their priorities have shifted during the course of the pandemic.

While districts top spending priorities for the first portion of funds were supplies and property, districts have spent most of the second and third funding installments on personal services salaries.

All told, nearly 53% of all reported expenditures under the fund have gone toward paying educator salary and benefits, according to the School + State Finance Project.

Local districts’ reliance on federal support, as well as the approaching deadlines for spending the remaining funds, have the group and some Connecticut educational policymakers worried about a coming fiscal cliff for local school districts.

In February, the School + State Finance Project was among advocates pushing for legislation that would have resulted in an additional $275 million in state funding by expediting scheduled increases in the state grants to local districts.

The bill did not pass. However, the two-year state budget proposal that did pass included $150 million in additional education funding.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jeff Currey, an East Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the Education Committee, appeared at a press conference conducted by the Connecticut Education Association, which released a survey reporting widespread discontent among teachers.

Asked about the coming fiscal cliff, Currey said state lawmakers had more work to do in order to address the problem.

“We were able to get 50% of what it would have cost to fully fund that piece of legislation so there’s another $150 million that is actually needed to be able to fill that,” he said.