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Montana's Public Schools Could Be Out Nearly $800,000 After COVID Aid Rule Change

Lockers in an empty school hallway.

Public school students in Montana may miss out on roughly $800,000 in federal aid for laptops, masks and educational services amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s according to a calculation from state education officials after the U.S. Department of Education’s plan for sharing emergency aid with private and home schools was thrown out in court.

A federal court this month told the U.S. government it can’t change a rule that's traditionally used to calculate how much federal funding is given to non-public schools for physical goods like laptops or for educational services such as speech therapy.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a rule in June calling for private and homeschools to receive a larger share of coronavirus relief funds. 

Before the rule was struck down in court, some public schools in Montana provided goods and services to non-public schools based on the higher spending level the rule called for. 

"Based off the formula and the guidance that we recieved, we calulated that the non-public share was $135,061," says Micah Hill, superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools.

Kalispell Public Schools received a little over $1 million in federal relief funding. Hill says most of the $135,000 share of that funding made available to private and home schools under the now defunct rule has been spent.

"I don’t know that there’s going to be a chance for the district to recoup any of that back for the students in the public school."

Hill says his staff have not calculated how much of that funding should have stayed with the district.

Districts across the state received about $41 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding. The Montana Office of Public Instruction estimates that statewide, the court ruling should result in public school districts spending about $800,000 less on non-public schools. In some cases, like Kalispell, that money is already spent. OPI is still working with districts to find out how much money has already gone out the door. 

OPI Spokesperson Dylan Klapmeier says most public school districts likely haven’t spent all the money made available to non-public schools under the DeVos’ rule, because federal relief funding doesn’t expire for two years. 

"So, what they will do is they will rearrange their budget and they will just have to be certain that they don't spend over this new amount."

However, some requests for the aid weren’t rationed for its two-year lifespan. 

An official with Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell says it began requesting funding almost immediately when $60,000 was made available this summer. Summer VanOrt, director of learning services for the school, says all of that funding has been drawn down. 

"We spent it on a variety of categories, including purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean our facilities, planning and coordinating, you know, if there's long-term closures, the technology we would need for that, as well as software."

VanOrt says, like public schools, Stillwater Christian needed to draw down that funding quickly in order to be prepared for the school year amid the pandemic. 

Klapmeier with OPI says schools won’t need to make up for any money spent under the former calculation for non-public schools’ share of federal relief dollars. But some are concerned about how much funding for supplies and services public school students missed out on. 

Helena Democratic State House Rep. Moffie Funk sits on the legislative interim education committee. She says based on conversations she had with the state’s largest districts, most AA school districts have already spent most of the money that, in part, should have stayed in public schools. 

She frustrated by "the money that’s been lost and the countless hours that our public school administrators have had to put into this.”

Funk wants any money overspent on non-public schools as a result of the overturned U.S. Department of Education rule to come back to public school districts. Although she doesn’t know how that could happen. 

Funk asked that very question to OPI’s Deputy Superintendent Tim Johnson during the interim Education Committee meeting Monday. 

“I don’t have a good answer for you when it comes to how to make the funds whole as a result of this," Johnson said. "I think that's something that we will continue to investigate and find out what the obligations are and how that would work. I just don’t have a good answer for you at this time."

School Administrators of Montana CEO Kirk Miller is urging OPI to quickly gauge exactly how much of the roughly $800,000 at stake was spent on private and home schools statewide. Miller thinks it will be next to impossible to recoup the extra dollars spent on non-public schools.

"There’s no way that SAM [School Administrators of Montana] would stand up and say that we demand that those services come back, take those Chromebooks out of the hands of the students in our non-public schools, because I don’t believe in that at all."

He adds that OPI could have avoided the issue by advising districts to allocate federal aid funding to non-public schools based on the typical formula for calculating their shares while U.S Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ rule was being litigated. 

Klapmeier with OPI says the state was legally bound to follow the rule.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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