While many surrounding suburbs have returned children to classrooms, close to 8,000 students in the Norristown Area School District are still being taught remotely a year into the pandemic.
It’s one of the challenges confronting the Montgomery County district, where an already stretched tax base has been further weakened by unemployment — causing a dip in the dollars the district needs to fund public education.
But that may soon change. Norristown, which has a budget of about $165 million, is poised to receive $20 million through the massive federal relief bill steering billions of dollars to schools across the country.
The aid is directed at districts with higher shares of low-income families, with 20% designated to address learning loss that students have experienced during the pandemic.
“We need money to try to get back to a sense of normalcy,” said Norristown Superintendent Christopher Dormer, who expects to spend the funds on expanded summer programs offering both remediation and enrichment to a wide range of students, and on math and reading specialists for the next school year. “We’re going to be able to have the money to tackle that, in a way we’ve never done before.”
The grants represent a historic federal investment in schools: An estimated $4.5 billion for districts and charter schools in Pennsylvania, and $2.5 billion to those in New Jersey. That’s on top of lesser rounds of federal aid awarded in prior COVID-19 relief bills.
By contrast, during the Great Recession a decade earlier, Pennsylvania’s schools received about $1 billion in federal relief.
The new surge of federal money “means the difference between opening as soon as possible and not,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
Districts like Philadelphia — which started bringing students back to classrooms last week — have struggled to reopen in part because of concerns over aging buildings and adequate ventilation. While schools will need to spend money to address the problems, they’ll have to balance that with academics and helping students who have struggled during an unprecedented school year, Cooper said.
Adding staff is tricky, however: School officials expect they’ll have to spend the one-time money by October 2023. So it won’t sustain permanent positions.
“That really means you have to be really thoughtful and careful about how you’re rolling these dollars into your budget and how you’re rolling them out of the budget,” said Hannah Barrick, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
The legislation, signed Thursday by President Joe Biden, specifies that money to schools be distributed through the federal Title I program, which targets higher-poverty districts.
Advocates including David Sciarra of the Education Law Center in Newark, which has pressed for more state aid for New Jersey’s poorest districts, said the infusion of federal money would benefit students with the greatest needs, such as English learners and students of color.
Still, he cautioned districts to use the money carefully, including on infrastructure upgrades to heating and cooling systems and restructuring classrooms to meet social distancing guidelines. “Once it’s spent, it’s gone,” he said.
The Pennsylvania district slated to receive the biggest share of the money is Philadelphia — at nearly $1.2 billion, according to estimates from Barrick’s group. That’s equal to more than a third of its annual budget and will give the district’s bottom line a boost over several school years.
Unlike any other district statewide, Philadelphia lacks the ability to raise its own revenue, depending on city, state, and federal dollars to keep lights on at 220 schools and educate about 120,000 students. An additional 80,000 attend charter schools funded by the district.
With costs growing faster than revenue, the district has been facing a structural deficit. As recently as December, officials warned that furloughs and layoffs were in play to close an $11 million budget gap.
But the federal money will erase that immediate threat. It’s the difference between program cuts and having enough funds to begin to address the pandemic’s effects, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.
”This is indeed a game-changer,” said Hite. “It really helps; it buys us time to figure out the longer-term issues.”
The district is already planning an extra marking period for this school year and robust summer programming, with thousands of children eligible. It could also spend on technology, facilities, and other infrastructure costs, and on debt-service costs.
”This goes a long way to helping us get on more sound financial footing over the long haul,” Hite said.
In Camden, the expected infusion of about $106 million would address the disparity for “those typically left behind and disenfranchised,” said Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs. The vast majority of the district’s 6,500 public school students come from low-income families.
“We are definitely grateful and thrilled,” McCombs said.
McCombs said the funds would likely be used to add a second certified teacher in every elementary classroom to provide small-group learning and one-to-one instruction to boost student achievement. Currently, that is provided only for special-education students, she said.
She said the district, under a state takeover since 2013 because of poor student performance, hopes to expand its summer school to all students and make it a full-day program. Last summer, the district enrolled about 500 to 700 students in a half-day program. McCombs also said the district wants to make technology upgrades to support remote learning.
Paulsboro School Superintendent Roy J. Dawson III plans a needs assessment to determine how his Gloucester County district will spend its anticipated $5.75 million in funding. He already has a wish list: a summer school for the entire district, an enrichment program, and the hiring of eight teachers and at least four counselors and support staff.
Dawson believes the additional funds will help Paulsboro implement new programs and teaching strategies to mitigate learning loss for the district’s 1,100 students. Like Camden, Paulsboro is among the region’s economically disadvantaged districts hit the hardest by the pandemic.
“It’s been devastating,” Dawson said.
While many districts in the area have already reopened in person, school leaders say they’re still trying to implement safety measures to bring more students back with less social distancing. In the Ridley School District in Delaware County, Superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel anticipates using part of its estimated $2.3 million award to improve school HVAC systems, purchase plastic-glass shields, and add more UV-light machines that disinfect classrooms.
“We generally don’t spend money that’s temporary money on people,” Wentzel said, though she added that Ridley will likely use some of the money on summer programs.
Looming over schools is their experience a decade earlier, when federal relief expired and states didn’t make up the gap — leaving many districts with gaping budget holes.
Hite vowed to avoid repeating that situation. “You have to be responsible with this level of funding,” he said. “It should be short-term spending for long-term impact.”
The surge in federal aid won’t resolve inequities among school districts — particularly in Pennsylvania, where the state’s education-funding system is the focus of a lawsuit targeting spending gaps between poor and wealthy communities.
Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed to address those gaps by hiking the income-tax rate on the top third of earners and sending an additional $1.3 billion to schools in his $40 billion budget plan. Republican legislators have opposed the tax increase.
In New Jersey, where the state continues to battle over how to fairly fund schools, some GOP lawmakers on Thursday called on Gov. Phil Murphy to use the federal funding to ensure that aid is not cut to any district under his proposed $44.8 billion budget, including wealthier ones.
Cooper, of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. who served as policy chief to former Gov. Ed Rendell during the last recession, thinks the short-term money could help less affluent schools make gains.
There’s also the prospect the pandemic’s impacts won’t be resolved by the next school year. “If we want social distancing in the fall, and we want full in-person instruction, we have to hire thousands of people,” Cooper said.
In Norristown, Dormer is trying to devise a plan that will boost resources for students, though he worries about sustainability. If students and families get used to extra staff, for instance, it will be difficult when the district can no longer afford them.
But the money “levels the playing field a bit,” Dormer said — giving Norristown a chance to add programs to match what families want. And for right now, he’s going to sleep better, he said, knowing that not only this year’s budget will look better, but the one after that.
“I won’t have to go and crush my community this year, maybe next year, with a maximum tax increase,” he said.