ESSER Funds and Capital Projects: What to Know Before You Start

ESSER Funds and Capital Projects

What to Know Before You Start


Since March 2020, public schools have received $189 billion in COVID-19 relief funding. The last and largest round, ESSER III (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief), began to be released to state and local education agencies in late spring 2021.

For many financially-pressed districts, the federal funds have been a lifeline. Many have used them to avoid cutting staff, bring back furloughed or laid-off teachers, or offer expanded services to students who suffered COVID-related learning losses. Others hope to use the funds to help address aging facilities and deferred maintenance. It’s hard to argue that fixed asset management shouldn’t be a priority — the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the public school system a D+ on its 2021 infrastructure report card. But is it allowed?

A few weeks ago, for example, the State Board of Education rejected an Illinois high school’s plan to use nearly half of its $1.9 million grant to install new artificial turf on its football field. Meanwhile, the School District of Philadelphia intends to use $325 million to supplement a $2 billion, six-year capital investment campaign to repair its notoriously dilapidated facilities. Why did one district’s plan get squashed while another’s sailed through? 


What capital projects are permitted? 

The U.S. Department of Education lists buildings, facilities, and maintenance as an allowable use of the money, but there are some strings attached. Districts can use ESSER III funds for:

  • School facility repairs and improvements to enable operation of schools to reduce risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards, and to support student health needs
  • Inspection, testing, maintenance, repair, replacement, and upgrade projects to improve the indoor air quality in school facilities, including mechanical and non-mechanical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, filtering, purification and other air cleaning, fans, control systems, and window and door repair and replacement
  • Developing strategies and implementing public health protocols including, to the greatest extent practicable, policies in line with guidance from CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities

With that guidance in mind, here are some possible ESSER-funded capital planning ideas to consider:


Closing learning gaps

The federal government requires school districts to invest at least 20% of their ESSER III funds on “evidence-based interventions” to make up for lost instructional time. But as long as a district can explain how the project helps close pandemic-related learning gaps. Building dedicated facilities to host expanded after-school programs or extended school year efforts  — or even a new professional learning annex for staff — will generally be viewed more favorably than proposing a new administrative building or natatorium. 


Improving air quality in schools

The ESSER III legislation specifically permits the use of funds for “testing, repair, replacement, and upgrade projects to improve the indoor air quality in school facilities.” With 53% of school districts nationwide reporting the need to update or replace HVAC systems, using ESSER funds to bring all campuses up to MERV 13 is one of the safest capital planning projects to undertake.


Offsetting rising construction costs  

Depending on the state, federal stimulus dollars may also be spent to help offset some of the COVID-related inflationary costs to building materials and construction costs. Again, projects that focus on students’ academic or post-secondary success — a new Career and Technical Education center, for example — will likely raise fewer flags with auditors than a new athletic stadium.

Regardless of how you choose to use ESSER funds, expect plenty of regular tracking and reporting requirements, possibly even including results or outcomes of your projects. 

If you’re considering how to use stimulus dollars to address your capital needs, we recommend that you start with an assessment of your current facilities. Using a capital planning software or fixed asset management software platform like Facility Insite to determine your most pressing needs is vital in creating a viable, actionable plan. To learn more about how Facility Insite can help your district, click here.

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