Getting ahead of it: How district leaders are planning to avoid a potential fiscal cliff

Pandemic relief funds have been a game changer for districts desperate for the resources necessary to continue high-quality instruction amid teacher shortages and other issues. But leaders' spending habits will change once these funds run dry, a new survey suggests.

From teacher shortages to student misbehavior, administrators have been leveraging the support of their pandemic relief funds in order to mitigate the risks imposed by COVID. But these funds won’t last forever, which is why leaders are preparing now to ensure their district’s daily operations won’t face any dramatic changes come September 2024 when ESSER funds run dry.

“As the Fiscal Year 2024 budget process continues to unfold on Capitol Hill, understanding how this unprecedented investment in K12 education is being used by districts is of great importance to policymakers, media and families,” reads a new survey from The School Superintendents Association (AASA). That’s why the organization reached out to district leaders to uncover exactly how they plan to manage the rest of their federal dollars to ensure both short-term and long-term sustainability. Here’s what they said:

District leaders’ top investments

Similar to previous iterations of the survey, district leaders identified the same three issues as their top-of-mind spending areas:

  • Increasing instructional time and opportunities; investing in high-quality curriculum materials (59%)
  • Recruiting specialist staff (58%)
  • Teacher planning and professional development (55%)

What’s important to understand is that leaders are shifting their focus from recruitment and retention to investing in curriculum, but why? According to their responses, administrators are concerned about longevity.

“District leaders understand they cannot sustain the investments of additional staff for more than another school year and are beginning to shift their focus away from funding people and towards investing in more hardware and software as well as professional development, which can be used beyond the expiration of ARP funding,” the report reads.

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Furthermore, they want to reduce their risk of falling victim to a potential fiscal cliff, which may prove even more dangerous for districts that are already facing declines in student enrollment.

“By slowly reducing the number of staff while redirecting resources towards building the capacity of staff that will be part of the system on a more permanent basis, district leaders are acting prudently,” the report declares.

Leaders’ top three long-term investments

Administrators’ primary goal is undoubtedly the long-term sustainability of their school or district. Thus, leaders have carefully assessed which areas will benefit the most from their ARP spending. According to the data, these are district leaders’ top three long-term investments:

  1. Expanding whole-child supports, services and programs

2. Renovating and rebuilding school facilities

3. Engaging high school students

In addition, 44% of respondents noted that sustainability is a top priority influencing their spending plans.

Preparing for the fiscal cliff

Given the possibility of a looming fiscal cliff, which has also been labeled as “the bloodletting” by one economist, district leaders also shared how they plan to “de-invest” in 2023 in preparation for the 2024 deadline. Considering that staffing makes up a vast majority of district budgets, it’s no shock that this area will be the first to see cuts.

According to the data, 53% of respondents said they would be forced to cut specialist staff, 51% would cut summer learning and 42% would reduce compensation for staff.

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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