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Medford schools want extension on federal money

School board likely to approve letter to the state’s congressional delegation asking for more time to spend COVID-19 relief funds

The Medford School District would like Congress to extend the deadline it has to use money from the third stimulus bill passed last year to help alleviate learning loss during the pandemic.

Medford school officials also have concerns with parameters of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, saying they won’t be able to spend all of it unless the district is able to invest in infrastructure.

That’s the gist of a draft letter to Sen. Jeff Merkley that the Medford School District Board of Education will discuss at a work session on Thursday, April 7. The letter, which also would go out to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, will receive consideration again at a regular board meeting April 21, when a vote is expected.

Brad Earl, assistant superintendent for operations with the Medford School District, said the language of the draft letter is similar to what other school districts are sending their congressional delegations.

“You’re going to see that many districts are putting that same kind of pressure on,” Earl said. “I think it’s fair to say that districts across the United States are all hoping that the deadline will get extended.”

The deadline Congress has given schools to spend ESSER III funds is Sept. 30, 2024. Medford schools have $33 million to spend, $4 million of which would go to the district’s charter schools, Earl said.

“It will take time to spend that money out, especially if we’re competing with others for staffing and supplies,” Earl said. “We’d like at least a year (longer to spend the funds). Two years would be even better, but at least one more year would be helpful.”

He said all of ESSER III could be used by 2024, but it wouldn’t be on all the items mandated by Congress.

“ESSER III allows us to modify our plan — it just has to be approved,” Earl said.

If the Medford School District doesn’t spend all of its ESSER money, it will be lost, leaving officials with little choice but to tap into other streams of revenue or cancel projects outright.

ESSER has come in three installments since President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law last year. The first round saw the purchase of laptops for students to go into remote learning; round two saw the installation of new heating and air conditioning systems and the purchase of the Medford Online Academy building; and round three helped maintain staffing levels.

ESSER III has been particularly important, Earl said, because it involved approval from the federal government for the district to tap into those funds to continue the renovation of Oakdale Middle School, set to open in the fall of 2023.

“We’re confident we’re going to get the $12.5 million spent on Oakdale because we’re up against a time deadline,” Earl said. “That has to be finished.”

But what he is worried about is the completion of heating and air conditioning systems. Not all schools have the air-filtering technology other Medford schools have been fortunate to receive.Earl counted 10 projects of this kind on the table.

“Some of them are really big,” Earl said. “In school, you can really only do projects of that nature when the kids are not around. So you have summer, basically, to get those projects done.”

Throw in other factors, such as competition for supplies, and it is difficult for some school officials to envision being able to spend all of the ESSER money in three-and-a-half years.

Informed of Medford schools’ draft letter, Molly Prescott, Merkley’s Oregon-based press secretary, said the senator’s office is “tracking the issue.”

“We’ve heard about it from a few districts, and we’re working with the Department of Education on exploring solutions,” Prescott wrote in an email.

Officials in other local school districts, including Ashland and Central Point, say they empathize with the Medford School District’s stance on ESSER funds.

Ashland schools Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove said his district would support any efforts by Merkley to extend ESSER III funding.

“An extension of the spending deadline is in the best interests of serving kids and would allow needed time for schools to strategically direct funds where they can have the greatest positive impact on learning,” said Bogdanove, who has reviewed Medford’s draft letter.

Ashland School Board Chair Eva Skuratowicz chimed in that if Bogdanove is ever interested in crafting a letter similar to Medford’s, the board would certainly take it under consideration.

In Central Point, District 6 Superintendent Walt Davenport told the newspaper that while he understands Medford’s concerns with ESSER funding timelines, his district was “well underway” with construction projects even before the pandemic began, thanks to a bond measure passed in 2019.

That is not to say the ESSER III funding hasn’t been a help to those projects, Davenport noted. It’s just that the timeline factor is a nonissue.

“While we are able to fulfill the current spending timelines associated with Esser III, I empathize with districts wanting to use the funding on capital improvements at a time when it is very difficult to initiate (and) complete projects of that nature,” Davenport wrote.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.