PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence Public School District plans to spend the majority of the $128 million it received from the American Rescue Plan Act last year on accelerating learning, but so far it has only spent a fraction of the funds.
School leaders say the delay in spending the latest tranche of COVID relief money has to do with the large influx of cash that had previously come into the state’s largest school district; more than $100 million was allocated to Providence schools from three different COVID relief bills passed by Congress even before the American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021.
So far, 5% of the district’s ARPA money has been spent entirely on $3,000 bonus checks for educators, which were negotiated in the latest collective bargaining agreement between the Gov. Dan McKee administration and the Providence Teachers Union last year. (Two other unions that represent PPSD employees also got bonus checks.)
Those bonuses cost roughly $6 million total.
The $122 million remaining ARPA money is slated to be spent on a variety of areas ranging from summer school to social-emotional learning to possibly extending the school day, according to a copy of the plan provided by PPSD.
Dr. Javier Montañez, the superintendent, said the goal is to spend the largest portion of the money on closing the achievement gap.
That plan includes “multiple pathways” to help students catch up to grade level, Montañez said, including offering summer programs to K-12 students, new career and technical education programs and other weekend and after-school programs.
About 3,000 students attended summer school this year, Montañez said.
“It was a good way to help our students stay on track so they can be successful,” he said. The district has been trying to expand summer programming to a wider variety of subjects and students, rather than just those who are failing and need to recover credits.
Broadly, the school district has broken the ARPA money into four buckets: $78 million for learning, equity and accelerated pathways; $6 million for world class talent, $17 million on efficient district systems and $27 million listed as “placeholder” for items that haven’t yet been determined or negotiated with the teachers’ union.
Some of the largest individual line items in that first category involve students’ behavioral and emotional needs, including a new $16 million “multi-tiered system of support,” a new program to help educators intervene when students have challenges related to academics, behavior or social-emotional needs, according to spokesperson Nick Domings.
The money will go towards trainings, materials and people to coordinate the program.
Another $19 million is slated to go toward behavioral intervention staff, according to the budget plan, and $14.7 million is set aside for social-emotional learning.
“We’re looking at students who have gone through a variety of ups and downs with COVID,” Montañez said. “We have students who lost their parents.”
Some of the “placeholder” funding is for items like extending the school day or increasing teacher planning time, which will need to be negotiated with the Providence Teachers Union in their next collective bargaining agreement next year.
Under the “efficient district systems,” the district is currently hiring building-based operations directors so principals can focus on academics, not budgets and logistics.
But spending the money on new personnel begs the question of how the employees will be compensated after the ARPA money is spent.
“It’s absolutely critical that this be used for one-time purposes,” said Michael DiBiase, the executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, in an interview for a report about ARPA earlier this month.
Montañez acknowledged that schools will need to fit the personnel costs into their regular budgets once the money runs out. The ARPA funds must be spent by the end of 2024.
DiBiase also expressed concerns about the urgency in which the money is being spent statewide. The ARPA money was the largest tranche of COVID relief money to school districts, with few strings attached and not much direction on how to spend it, DiBiase said.
“We have an emergency in terms of learning loss and responding to that and trying to make up for the learning loss that’s happened,” DiBiase. “We would like to see more urgency, leadership, focus, priority on these dollars.”
Montañez said the district has been slow to spend the ARPA funds because they’re still working on spending the last tranche of COVID cash called ESSER II, the second installment of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars that passed Congress in December 2020. (The school funds in the American Rescue Plan law are known as ESSER III.)
The ESSER II funds were spent on masks, PPE, chromebooks, substitute teachers and other COVID needs, according to Domings, and the remaining funds are being spent on hiring incentives and ESL certifications.
The latter two items address the ongoing teacher shortage, including a educators who are certified to educate thousands of English learners in Providence.
Addressing the teacher shortage
Providence’s teacher shortage isn’t new, and school districts across the country are struggling to find educators to fill classrooms this fall.
As of Tuesday, Providence had 142 vacant teaching jobs ahead of the school year, 90 of which are vacant classroom positions.
School starts on Aug. 29.
Montañez said human resources is working hard to hire teachers in time for the first day of school, but unfilled classroom jobs will be covered by long-term substitutes.
Montañez said the district is at 95% of classrooms filled now, closing in on this year’s state turnaround goal of 96%.
“I want to see 100%,” Montañez said. “But we’re almost there.”
Providence is offering thousands of dollars in incentives and signing bonuses — using the COVID dollars — to teachers who join the ranks, especially in hard-to-fill areas like math, science and ESL. But even with those signing bonuses and the retention bonuses for existing teachers, Montañez acknowledged money isn’t enough.
“It’s creating a culture and a climate that people want to stay here, and people want to come here,” Montañez said. “This is just a bonus to get them in the door. How do we keep them?”
Below is the district’s current plan on how to spend the American Rescue Plan Act money.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.
Eli Sherman and Tolly Taylor contributed to this report.