New Mexico schools have received hundreds of millions of federal relief dollars since the pandemic hit. But next year, the last of that money is set to run out.

Sep. 4—During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government began approving hundreds of millions of emergency relief dollars for New Mexico schools to help them through the crisis.

Since then, the state's largest district, Albuquerque Public Schools, has been buoyed by the funding, receiving a cumulative $378 million, and has many examples of putting the money to good use — such as spending it on brick-and-mortar improvements in schools, tutoring, counseling and pilot programs that provided more, and more enriching, time for younger students.

But next school year, APS expects much of that to go over a cliff.

In what district officials have described as the 2024-2025 "bloodletting," the last round of federal dollars — known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER — is going away, which could mean positions around the district being cut and treasured programs or other services being left by the wayside.

Superintendent Scott Elder said the district did its best from the outset to avoid using ESSER funds to hire too many people, instead aiming to buy more time from some staff or work with outside firms to provide services like counseling.

But even the potential loss of those services, he said, could have a profound impact on students.

"What I think not just APS, but everybody's going to struggle with is, ... we had these kids that were showing some progress or getting support in these ways. And suddenly, that's gonna go away," he said.

And APS did hire some people with ESSER funds, just generally not for positions like classroom teachers or counselors, Elder said. He added that the district is no longer hiring full-time positions with ESSER dollars and that those who did accept jobs funded with the federal dollars knew their positions weren't on firm ground.

There are 53 full-time-equivalent positions funded by ESSER dollars, and 506 more people have stipends or pay differentials to work more hours or take on more duties that are paid by the federal funding, Chief Financial Officer Rennette Apodaca said.

Still, it's not yet known how many of those people would be cut loose, she said, adding that figuring that out is a process that will play out over the course of this school year and as APS develops its budget for next year. Elder said if there were cuts, staff would know before May.

When put together, the full-time positions, stipends and pay differentials cost about $11 million, which Apodaca noted is just a small percentage of all ESSER funding.

APS officials say they've done their due diligence — asking departments to analyze their budgets, building up cash reserves to absorb some of the salaries the district offloaded onto ESSER dollars and earmarking about 70% of the third round of ESSER funding.

The district also hopes to keep some of the positions that may go away, in some cases leveraging the "natural attrition" of staff as they retire or otherwise exit the district.

There will be positions APS cannot cut, officials say, and will need to be absorbed regardless because they are deemed critical to the wellbeing of the district. But what will make a position critical, Apodaca said, hasn't been pinned down yet.

"In my opinion, I would say anything related to the classroom, to the students," she said, would be "critical."

What seems to be most at risk though, Elder said, are the services — tutoring, counseling, training for principals, etc. — and other programs, to potentially include some before- and after-school programs.

"Before you can really educate a child, that child has to feel safe, that child has to be fed, and they have to feel supported," he said. "A lot of these supports that we're going to have to let go are going to make that harder."

According to its website, APS also used $50 million in ESSER funds to stabilize its budget.

Elder frankly said he isn't necessarily holding out hope for anyone swooping in to cushion APS' financial cliff-dive.

"There's never been any word about, 'Oh, ... it'll get extended,' or, 'The feds are going to keep funding us,' " he said. "I don't think we can expect anybody to ride in on a white horse and save us completely from it."

He does, though, think APS will be able to show lawmakers in Santa Fe that there were successful experiments the district conducted with ESSER dollars that they may be interested in investing in at the state level.

Legislative Education Study Committee Deputy Director John Sena said that analyzing how districts spent their ESSER dollars and possibly looking at ways to continue some of their initiatives is something the committee is working on ahead of next school year.

"Obviously, it was a lot of money from the federal government, and so the state, I don't think, is thinking of backfilling everything, but being pretty judicious about what's working and what needs to be continued in order to serve student needs," he said.

Some of the things that may be backfilled, Sena said, could include efforts to improve attendance or for educators who support students' mental and behavioral health needs.