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District leaders should embrace final ESSER dollars for shedding systemic clutter as they prepare for the fiscal cliff and budget challenges.

It’s budget season: How are you preparing for the fiscal cliff?

District leaders should embrace final ESSER dollars for shedding systemic clutter

Key points:

The final chapters of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding are drawing near.

The imminent end of ESSER funding has pushed school districts to a critical juncture, compelling them to confront budget deficits for the upcoming 2024-2025 school year before the “fiscal cliff” hits in 2025-2026.

For three years, school districts nationwide have relied on a temporary financial cushion to soften the blow from the pandemic. When that safety net disappears, they will be up against higher expenses and dwindling revenue.

Every day of delay means inefficiently spending or leaving money on the table altogether. As districts navigate this budget season, tough decisions loom regarding staff reductions and cuts to essential resources that have supported students’ learning and well-being.

Superintendents and school boards are at a critical moment, reassessing how to allocate remaining funds and adopt a new approach to operations.

What lies ahead of the fiscal cliff

As school districts approach the September 2024 deadline to exhaust their ESSER funds, a sobering realization is setting in. With schools having collectively used $60 billion in ESSER funds for each of the past two years, they must now prepare for future budget planning without it.

With this impending budget crunch, many districts find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to “right-size” their budgets.

While there were some one-time purchases, the reality now is that some dollars spent were not sustainable in the long run.

A substantial chunk of ESSER funding went towards expanding personnel, with 44 percent of districts’ spent funds going towards staffing needs, covering expenses like salaries and benefits for extra personnel. This included hiring more support and administrative staff, investing in professional development, and deliberately alleviating the post-pandemic workload by bringing in additional hands that they wouldn’t have otherwise afforded.

As districts prepare for the 2025-2026 budget, many will realize that changes are necessary to offset the increased expenses they took on.

Restructuring district operations with long-term solutions

Support staff roles at the district level, deemed as ‘nice to haves’ rather than essential, will likely be restructured as districts adjust to a leaner operational model. Due process clerk roles such as administrative assistants and paperwork facilitators are already seeing reductions.

In the coming years, the final funding decisions made by current district leaders will serve as a litmus test to determine if they have proactively addressed the internal capacity needed at the system level to support their chosen allocation of funds.

Will they prioritize short-term fixes, or will they root their decisions in sustainability? These next two years will reveal whether leaders have laid a solid foundation for success or if their choices were merely temporary patches without lasting impact.

The path for district superintendents

As districts chart their budgetary course, it’s imperative to pause and contemplate three things: Where are you now, where do you want to go, and how will you get there?

The answer to these questions lies in assessing the readiness of your teams – do you have the right people in place, equipped with the time and technology to make the investment worthwhile?

Where are you now?

Take a moment to define your current state.

From the special education department to the superintendent’s office, educators at every level feel the burden of limited resources and time constraints. While increasing either may seem unattainable, first clarify the top priorities—not just what seems ideal for the time being.

Daily workloads often hinder us from pausing to pinpoint these priorities, let alone communicate them to school communities. However, without a clear understanding of what’s working and what’s not, staff and resource cuts will be felt even more.

Where do you want to go?

Consider how to strengthen educator recruitment and combat turnover.

Educators are responsible for bringing their best to the table, but it’s up to the district to equip them with the tools they need to thrive. Without proper support, engagement, and resources, educators risk burnout, which could lead to sudden departures, impeding the district’s growth as it rushes to fill vacancies.

Recruitment and retention efforts require more than just one-time investments; they demand sustainable systems and robust processes. This includes ongoing professional development initiatives rather than fleeting, one-day training sessions.

To attract and keep highly-qualified staff, the districts can opt for quick fixes and superficial technology solutions, which often entail extensive and costly training or ‘set it and forget it’ implementation. Alternatively, they can choose to foster lasting partnerships with vendors who support their growth, celebrating successes and driving progress towards long-term goals.

How will you get there?

Lose the survival mode mentality and play the long game.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, districts understandably adopted a cautious approach to fund allocation, prioritizing proven outcomes over risky endeavors. The reactive decisions made during the crisis were necessary for maintaining educational continuity, yet the persistent workload across administrative roles and special education teams, compounded by reduced staffing and increased stress, underscores the need for a new approach.

Continuing to operate in survival mode risks overlooking opportunities to lay the groundwork for sustainable systems beyond the fiscal cliff–systems that will yield lasting benefits to staff, educators, and the students they serve.

Choosing the right educational technology to partner with may seem like a gamble, but it can also be a game-changer.

Technology solutions that streamline administrative tasks, coupled with continuous professional development programs and innovative teaching methods, can empower educators to do more with less.

Sustainability beyond the fiscal cliff

Now is the time to seize the opportunity and lay the groundwork for the future. District leaders should embrace final ESSER dollars for shedding systemic “clutter” in ways that better serve students in the long run.

The reality is that the tenure of a superintendent and the term of a school board member are finite. However, visionary leaders understand the importance of investing in system structures and support that will endure long after they’re gone. By acting now–and recognizing that effective implementation is a gradual process, not a quick fix–they leave behind a legacy of positive impact that will benefit students and educators for years to come.

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