Butler Area Schools got $18 million in pandemic relief money: What are they doing with it?

BUTLER, Pa. — Getting back to school post-COVID has been a challenge for most schools across the state, but it has also created an unexpected opportunity for many districts given the huge amounts of money in pandemic relief aid. Those dollars are giving school leaders the funds needed to make improvements that otherwise might not have been possible.

Butler Area Schools received a total of $17.8 million in three distributions of pandemic relief aid. The district is using the bulk of its money to literally build the future of its school system.

“We made a decision early on to commit a large portion of it to a construction project at our school district,” Butler Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian White said.

The district is using $14 million of the pandemic relief funds to build a 40,000-square foot addition to its high school. The expansion will make room for more students, after the district decided to close its middle school.

The superintendent says the project qualified for the pandemic relief funds, because the middle school had serious air-quality issues, which created more risk for COVID spread.

“Our (middle school) building was 100 years old. It’s a gorgeous building, but it had a lot of things that needed taken care of and one of those big things was the HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system,” he said. “By closing that facility and reorganizing our school district, we were able to put students in buildings with better air quality moving forward.”

As part of the construction project, White says the money will pay for 12 new classrooms, a technical education lab, and a workroom for teachers.

Construction on the Butler High School campus started last summer and will be completed in phases, with the first major section, including the cafeteria and large group meeting area, expected to be finished by the beginning of the school year on September 6.

PA got nearly $8 Billion

Pennsylvania got a combined total of $7.74 million from the federal government to distribute to all school districts in the state. It’s called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER).

Each district was required to apply for the funds and come up with a detailed plan for how the money will be used. There were three distributions, with at least 20% of the third allotment required to address learning loss.

  • ESSER I in May 2020 for emergency funds to help schools respond to COVID-19
  • ESSER II in January 2021, additional emergency funds to help schools respond to COVID-19
  • ESSER III (ARP) in March 2021 to support the long-term work of education recovery

Finding out how much YOUR district got

While Butler Area Schools got a total of nearly $18 million, by comparison, Pittsburgh Public Schools got nearly $170 million. That was the second largest amount in the state, behind Philadelphia.

Click here to see our 11 Investigates report on how Pittsburgh Public Schools is spending its money.

Click here to find out how much your school district got in ESSER funding. Then, click on each link for ESSER I, ESSER II, and ESSER III (APR) and search for the name of your school district to find the amount allocated for each distribution. You can add up all three amounts to get the total amount your district got. Then, to find out how your district is using the money, go to your district website. They are required by the state to post information on how they plan to use the money.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education tells Channel 11 it is working on an easier way for parents and citizens to find out how much money each district got and what it is being used for, but it has not yet completed the webpages.

Addressing Learning Loss

Butler Area Schools got $93,226 for ESSER I, $5.86 million for ESSER II, and $11.85 million for ESSER III.

At least $2.4 million of that third distribution will go directly to address learning loss in the district, and White says it’s badly needed.

“It’s significant. We have students who are not on grade level. We have students we have to make up a lot of ground with,” White said. “We’ve seen some gains where our kids have come back, but we’re still not at our pre-pandemic levels of achievement.”

Since COVID-19 started, the district has seen anywhere from 5% to 20% learning loss in achievement depending on grade level.

To help address that, White says they’ve hired more staff.

“We increased the number of teachers, particularly long-term substitutes and what we call instructional practitioners to stabilize our staffing the last couple of years,” he said.

They also added eight full-time mental health therapists to help students overcome social and emotional issues that worsened during the pandemic.

Another big challenge has been rebuilding routine and structure for students.

“We have more kids who are chronically absent than ever before, and that means absent for 10% of the school year or more,” White said.

He says COVID restrictions, unfortunately, taught students bad habits that now have to be untaught to make them successful for the future.

“Now we have to reteach that your attendance can’t be casual. Your employer is going to expect you to show up at work, and your teachers expect you to show up, too. So, that’s going to be one of the major challenges moving forward.”

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