Manvel Public School is emerging from a long year of pandemic, just like every other district in North Dakota. And there’s work to be done.
Near the top of the list are school windows, many of which date back to 1963. They’re often covered over on the edges with insulation, blocking the sunlight, or bleed heat during the winter. Dave Wheeler, Manvel’s superintendent, is hoping to replace the aging windows soon, giving classrooms more ventilation.
It’s a $90,000 project, but now is the right time for it. With plenty of incoming COVID stimulus funding, the resources are there to get the job done.
"I’m confident that we will be able to start doing paperwork here before this school year is over,” Wheeler said in early April.
The COVID-19 pandemic has scrambled school schedules around the country, sending many students home to learn at a distance. Even as some students have returned this school year, they’ve been wearing masks, eating meals in classrooms or otherwise carefully managing their viral exposure.
But as billions of dollars in federal money flow into districts around the country — meant to cushion the pandemic’s expensive necessities — the results have been transformative for schools. In East Grand Forks, hundreds of new iPads and Chromebooks have been purchased. That’s years ahead of the district’s pre-pandemic schedule to bring personal electronics into the classroom.
"I think the pandemic has been terrible for students and families and staff members,” East Grand Forks Superintendent Mike Kolness said. “But there are some shining stars in it as well. We've upgraded our technology, which was needed. We've updated our teaching methods.”
The result of all that money is the promise of longer-lasting change. Documents provided by both Minnesota and North Dakota state education officials show billions of dollars in federal funds allocated to school districts across both states. Federal stimulus funding allocated through the state for Grand Forks Public Schools, for example, adds up to about $32.6 million.
That funding comes from multiple sources. Across three federal COVID stimulus bills, there have been funds set aside to help hire more staff, to help boost distance learning and more. The biggest pot of funding has been allocated on a formula that accounts for the number of students in poverty, on reduced lunch or in foster care.
That means that overall federal stimulus levels can vary significantly from district to district. In Grand Forks, for example, the funding comes to about $4,400 per student. That’s roughly on par with many of the largest districts in the state, which are being allocated between $2,500 and $5,000 per student. Fargo Public Schools are receiving nearly $4,700 per pupil, for example; Jamestown schools, about $4,100.
Of all North Dakota schools, Fort Yates has received the highest per-student amount, at $51,846. Oberon is second, at $33,483, followed by Twin Buttes at $31,277. Six districts have received at least $20,000 in per-pupil aid and, overall, 15 have received at least $15,000.
There are nearly two dozen school districts in North Dakota with allocations of more than $10,000 per pupil. One of them is the Belcourt School District, which has been allocated more than $20,000 per student in federal support.
Michelle Thomas, the Belcourt superintendent, explains that the significant amount of money was a godsend for a traditionally impoverished district.
Belcourt, situated in north-central North Dakota 80 miles northwest of Devils Lake, has spent $500,000 on new laptops, purchased new buses — necessary to keep routes during social distancing — and made sure students have the internet access they needed. Thomas said there’s still a lot of discussion to be had on how any further money will be spent, but the funding promises change for students. She raised the possibility of expanded summer school, renovations and more.
“I think it has huge implications,” Thomas said.
Of all North Dakota schools, Fort Yates has been allocated the highest per-student amount so far, at $51,846. Oberon is second, at $33,483, followed by Twin Buttes at $31,277. Six districts have received at least $20,000.
Educators are still waiting on guidance for how they can spend much of the federal funds, which already have certain restrictions on how and when they can be spent. And it’s not just money that’s been sent off to schools — it’s given back to schools to reimburse expenses, and funds include deadlines for any expenses.
For some educators, that leaves it unclear just how big of an impact the money will leave.
And it won’t solve everything. The Grand Forks district is grappling with its budget, as leaders juggle revenue concerns and facility spending. The COVID money will not make those problems go away.
Grand Forks School Board member Doug Carpenter points out that systems like his will still have pressing financial needs, even when all the federal money is spent. After all, the longer-term maintenance cost in the Grand Forks district is forecast to stretch into nine figures — perhaps as high as $150 million to $180 million over the next decade, he said. There's no way the federal funding will cover that.
"Certainly, the money from the federal government is going to be helpful. But it's not, by any means, near a solution to our financial concerns," Carpenter said. "We're going to be able to do a number of infrastructure projects related to HVAC ... without using local tax dollars. That's beneficial — it saves local taxpayers in the long run."
But, he said, it's no long-term solution. And since funding programs make the money over the course of several years, he says that's plenty of time for funding to shift.
As schools begin to come out of the worst of the pandemic, it has leaders thinking of life after the virus. In East Grand Forks, Kolness is hopeful students will return to something like normal in the fall. And in Grand Forks Public Schools, leaders are starting to inch back toward normalcy.
In an early April statement released to the Herald, Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Terry Brenner pointed out that gyms and performance spaces are accommodating more people; graduation and prom are set to happen.
But things aren’t over just yet, Brenner said.
“We reserve the right to revert back to more stringent measures should Grand Forks County move back into (higher risk levels),” he said. “We are responding to what the COVID-19 data is telling us, so there is not a clear straight path to exit COVID-19 yet.”
ND per-pupil dollars
The dollar amounts below are federal stimulus allocations to local school districts through five key aid programs detailed by the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Other allocations made through local governments aren't included.
For some portions of the funding, federal aid was packaged for multiple school districts. One round of Hope Page School District's money, for example, was listed in state documents as included with Maple Valley. Schools like Hope Page carry an asterisk, *, after their total. Schools like Maple Valley carry a cross, †, after theirs.
Alexander, $2,771; Anamoose†, $19,808; Apple Creek, $2,227; Ashley, $4,494.
Bakker, $19,334; Barnes County North, $4,436; Beach, $4,699; Belcourt, $21,957; Belfield, 3,224; Beulah, $2,446; Billings County, $2,036; Bismarck, $3,016; Bottineau, $4,171; Bowbells, $5,400; Bowman County, $2,149; Burke Central, $4,502.
Carrington, $2,519; Cavalier, $3,574; Center-Stanton, $3,792; Central Cass†, $2,201; Central Valley, $3,050.
Dakota Prairie, $4,340; Devils Lake, $5,730; Dickinson, $3,459; Divide County, $3,888; Drake*, $1,276; Drayton, $7,338; Dunseith, $23,213.
Edgeley, $4,102; Edmore, $16,111; Eight Mile, $5,908; Elgin-New Leipzig, $5,998; Ellendale, $3,945; Emerado, $19,699; Enderlin, $4,457.
Fairmount, $7,947; Fargo, $4,678; Fessenden-Bowdon, $3,044; Finley-Sharon*, $4,925; Flasher, $3,424; Fordvile-Lankin, $3,723; Fort Ransom, $6,009; Fort Totten, $28,836; Fort Yates, $51,846.
Gackle-Streeter, $6,830; Garrison, $3,681; Glen Ullin, $4,792; Glenburn, $6,398; Goodrich*, $8,674; Grafton†, $6,206; Grand Forks, $4,396; Grenora, $6,157; Griggs County, $4,681.
Halliday, $4,650; Hankinson, $4,059; Harvey, $41,50; Hatton Eielson†, $3,227; Hazelton-Moffit-Braddock, $4,336; Hazen, $2,043; Hebron, $4,252; Hettinger, $2,813; Hillsboro, $3,102; Hope-Page*, $2; Horse Creek, $9,651.
Jamestown, $4,080; Kenmare, $3,566; Kensal, $3,924; Kidder County, $4,639; Killdeer, $2,048; Kindred, $978; Kulm, $5,265.
Lakota, $4,604; LaMoure, $4,264; Langdon, $4,162; Larimore, $3,320; Leeds, $5,804; Lewis and Clark, $2,141; Lidgerwood, $4,310; Linton†, $4,598; Lisbon, $2,321; Litchville-Marion, $6,787; Little Heart, $5,833; Lone Tree, $10,203.
Maddock, $6,055; Manda, $3,522; Mandaree, $13,418; Manvel, $3,312; Maple Valley†, $3,786; Mapleton*, $678; Marmath, $5,858; Max, $4,716; Mayville-Portland CG, $3,089; McClusky†, $7,587; McKenzie County, $3,717; Medina, $4,375; Menoken, $2,396; Midkota, $6,354; Midway, $6,26; Milnor, $5,209; Minnewauken, $19,331; Minot, $3,448; Minto, $7,636; Mohall-Landsford-Sherwood, $2,938; Montpelier, $7,201; Mott-Regent, $4,375; Mount Pleasant, $6,747; Munich, $1,774.
Napoleon, $3,285; Nedrose, $4,903; Nesson, $2,008; New England, $5,078; New Rockford-Sheyenne, $5,714; New Salem-Almount, $2,475; new Town, $8,246; Newburg-United, $4,469; North Border, $4,180; North Sargent, $4,556; Northern Cass, $1,689; Northwood, $3,813.
Oakes, $2,715; Oberon, $33,483.
Park River, $3,692; Parshall, $8,303; Pingree-Buchanan, $4,955; Powers Lake, $2,006; Richardton-Taylor, $3,622; Richland, $2,418; Rolette, $10,139; Roosevelt, $11,894; Rugby, $3,496.
Sargent Central, $3,730; Sawyer, $9,821; Scranton, $3,282; Selfridge, $24,754; Solen, $22,260; South Heart, $2,341; South Prairie, $2,500; St. John, $18,735; St. Thomas*, $1,499; Stanley, $2,628; Starkweather, $7,822; Sterling*, $12,124; Strasburg, $5,147; Surrey, $2,130; Sweet Briar, $4,819.
TGU, $4,526; Thompson, $839; Tioga, $2,135; Turtle Lake-Mercer, $2,753; Twin Buttes, $31,277.
Underwood, $2,572; United, $2,256.
Valley City, $4,489; Valley-Edinburg, $5,638; Velva, $2, 874.
Wahpeton, $5,105; Warwick, $25,090; Washburn, $2,099; West Fargo, $2,624; Westhope, $5,060; White Shield, $14,554; Williams County, $3,379; Williston, $3,097; Wilton†, $3,027; Wing*, $1,162; Wishek, $5,795; Wyndmere, $2,358; Yellowstone, $4,276; Zeeland, $13,131.