End of COVID relief funds spells more staff cuts for Grand Forks, East Grand Forks school districts

Apr. 19—GRAND FORKS — Public schools in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks expect to cut more staff positions next year as federal COVID-19 relief funds run dry.

Grand Forks Public Schools expects to eliminate four special education coordinator positions and does not currently have funding budgeted for its Mentor Center, while East Grand Forks will cut three student support positions. These positions are currently funded through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER.

Both districts are also set to implement a broader slate of cuts to salaries and programs in light of continuing budget deficits.

"One big difference (from other staff cuts) is we've known this from day one," Grand Forks Public Schools' Business Manager Baumbach said. "We can communicate, 'here's where the dollars are coming from, and this is the runway, and short of additional dollars this is our plan.'"

Schools nationwide are beginning to budget for their first year without ESSER funds to boost their budget. Between 2020 and 2021, Congress allocated some $190 billion in the additional funds to public schools in three stimulus packages.

Grand Forks Public Schools was allocated a total of $28.9 million in ESSER funds, while East Grand Forks has been allocated around $3 million.

But funding from the third and final package must be spent by September, leading to fears of a "fiscal cliff" for schools that have relied on the federal funds to fill holes in their budgets.

Both local school districts plan to exhaust their remaining ESSER dollars by the start of the next school year.

Grand Forks will spend $9.1 million in ESSER funds this year, including $2.7 million on staff salaries and benefits and $3.5 million toward capital improvements at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.

Another $2.8 million is expected to go toward one-time expenses or toward closing the gap on the $1.5 million operating deficit Grand Forks is expected to run this year, Baumbach said.

The district intends to incorporate some of those ESSER-funded positions into the general ledger and drop others.

"We knew that it was one-time money, and if you're going to invest in a position, you need to understand that it might go away in the end if you can't find replacement funds for it," Baumbach said.

Four special education coordinator positions, half of the employees the district has in that position, will see their roles cut.

Baumbach said the employees working as special education counselors have been aware funding for their positions will run out this year and the district has made plans to move them into other positions they also are qualified to do.

Right now the district does not have funds budgeted for its Mentor Center, which offers additional tutoring for middle and high school students and employs the full-time equivalent of 3.36 employees, mostly in part-time roles.

ESSER dollars pay both staff costs and for the program's lease at the UND Clinical Education Center.

Baumbach said administrators are looking for grants to save the Mentor Center, which was honored with an award from the National School Boards Association last year.

"I would say it's been successful, so we're trying to keep our options open," he said.

Several additional social workers the district paid for using ESSER dollars will have their salaries paid next year through a $500,000 Medicaid reimbursement.

Another $1.5 million in positions currently funded by COVID relief funds, including mental health professionals and intervention teachers, will be incorporated into the general fund next year.

On the other side of the river, East Grand Forks will spend around $900,000 in ESSER funds this year, including more than half a million dollars on salaries and benefits, according to Superintendent Bryan Hackbarth.

Last week, East Grand Forks School Board members voted to eliminate the full-time equivalent of 12.5 positions, including two social workers, an assistant principal, an elementary school teacher, three elementary school paraprofessionals and "all seasonal summer maintenance positions."

Three ESSER-funded positions — two social workers and a school counselor — are included in those cuts. Several other positions are being eliminated through attrition, with the district choosing not to fill positions vacated by employees who have resigned.

East Grand Forks is running a $1.4 million deficit in 2023-24, the second such year it's operated in the red, and is making broader staff cuts in a bid to bring itself back into the black.

Grand Forks Public Schools is

similarly planning dozens of cuts to staff FTE

in a bid to erase a projected deficit in 2024-25 and replenish the district's diminished operating fund reserves.

Hackbarth said the district was "probably going to take on one or two positions" currently being paid for by COVID relief dollars this year.

"We didn't get rid of all of them," Hackbarth said.

The district is using its remaining $400,000 in ESSER funds to finance summer school as well as after-school programs and tutoring.

Hackbarth said the district is looking for ways to continue funding those programs past September.

"Schools boards and superintendents everywhere are looking for alternate funding to sustain those programs and interventions," he said. "Summer school has been terrific for our kids and our community, and so to simply say we can't fund that no more, I don't think that's the right answer."

He admitted he didn't think it was likely East Grand Forks would be able to find funding for summer school, but was more confident about being able to find funds for after-school programs.