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Some Utah schools are choosing to not receive federal COVID relief funds

Stack of Book and Money on a scale.
Of the 155 public school districts and charters in Utah, only 5 are choosing to not receive COVID relief funding.

Of the 155 public school districts and charters in Utah, five are choosing to forgo the latest round of federal COVID relief funding.

In total, Utah schools are receiving close to $1 billion in relief aid over three major installments, each with slightly different stipulations on how the money can be used.

The funding is designed to help keep schools afloat through the pandemic and provide additional support for students. But the requirements and documentation has become an arduous task for many school staff, making it both difficult for them to decide how to use the money and for federal officials to track how effective it is at helping students.

Timpanogos Academy in Lindon was one of the five schools to opt out of the latest funding round. Principal Errol Porter said the school simply doesn’t need it.

He said his school has not been heavily impacted by the pandemic. It’s relatively small, serving about 520 students, most of whom have been attending in-person classes since last year.

The school also doesn’t have any debt on its buildings, he said, which means they are less affected by budget swings.

“We never lost any money [during the pandemic] and our costs didn't increase,” Porter said. “So we looked at it and said, ‘Do we need this? And do we really want to tie our hands with the federal government?’”

Thomas Edison Charter Schools in Logan also chose not to apply. In a statement, Principal Shem Smith of Thomas Edison’s north campus said school leaders saw that other schools have had to hire additional staff in order to manage the application process, which is not something they wanted to do.

“Ultimately, TECS governance and management felt it could operate more efficiently by opting out of the Federal grant,” Smith said.

Rod Cook, business administrator for the Box Elder School District, said applying for the federal funds has been a challenge even for a much larger district like his. With over 12,000 students, it’s the 13th biggest district in the state and is receiving just over $4.9 million in relief funds.

The process has been further complicated by unclear or shifting rules and restrictive time limits. All funds must be spent by 2024.

“You have to go through and detail out how you expect to spend the funds, which is difficult when you're sitting in a situation where you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow,” Cook said. “It almost ate our staff alive.”

Because of the time limit, many schools are opting to spend the funds on building upgrades rather than salary increases or additional staff.

Cook said Box Elder is looking to update its HVAC systems as many classes don’t have air conditioning. But even that, he said, is a challenge because of the ongoing labor shortage that’s also affecting the construction industry.

“I know many of the school districts are looking at some kind of construction or building,” he said. “We're all going to be in that market because we're spending some of those dollars to do those kinds of things.”

Overall, he said the federal funds have been a net gain for his district, helping it absorb the shock of the pandemic. It allowed them to retain school staff, such as bus drivers and custodians, who might have otherwise been let go and overtime managing a stressful workload.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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