NC schools grappling with post-pandemic ‘funding cliff’

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Schools in North Carolina face a “funding cliff” this fall as money from the federal government to help get through and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic will run out. It’s an issue state lawmakers looked at Monday.

Dr. Michael Maher, deputy state superintendent, said in total, the state received nearly $6 billion in funding. The last round of that came through the American Rescue Plan, which brought $3.6 billion to the state.

Maher said the Department of Public Instruction is meeting with local school leaders now to address the issue, asking them, “What is your plan for October of 2024 when the funds run out?”

Schools used the funding in a variety of ways, including paying hiring and retention bonuses, upgrading HVAC systems, summer school programs and buying devices like Chromebooks for students to use.

Of the state’s 115 school districts, 89 of them have told DPI they either have not identified how they’ll pay to keep replacing those devices in the years ahead of they don’t have the money to do that.

On average, the devices cost $525 each with a warranty, DPI says. They have to be replaced every four to five years, which is estimated to cost districts more than $200 million annually.

“The technology money is lacking so much. How are they gonna be able to replenish those and what is the game plan in three or four years?” asked Rep. Brian Biggs (R-Randolph). “If we can’t keep up with our students and our parents, they’re gonna find somewhere where they can keep up.”

State officials are meeting with local school leaders about the issue and sharing with them a tool that DPI developed to help them calculate which initiatives had the biggest “return on investment” or contributed most to improved outcomes for children. Click here to view that tool.

“We’re calling it a funding cliff,” said Bruce Mildwurf, director of government relations for the NC School Boards Association. “Whatever they’re using it for, it’s going away. And, those funds aren’t going to be growing on trees for them to pluck and use on those valuable tools.”

Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) said it’s unclear what the price tag will be to continue the various programs that are most successful and how much the state would spend to keep them going. Torbett said state leaders are discussing options like bulk purchases of electronic devices to try to get them at a lower cost.

The General Assembly will reconvene in April and consider changes to the state budget.

Mildwurf said, “We know these are valuable programs. We’ve been given funds for valuable resources, but it’s gonna dry up.”

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