As local teachers get bonuses, Congress debates whether schools need more relief money

Updated: Mar. 3, 2021 at 6:21 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Sen. Bill Cassidy is among the Republicans who say President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan is too expensive. Like the others, he’s pointed to proposed aid for schools to illustrate his point.

“Last year, Congress appropriated $68 billion for kindergarten through 12th grade. Of that, only $5 billion has already been spent,” Louisiana’s senior senator said. “We’re spending money that doesn’t need to be spent.”

Cassidy questions whether schools should get more money from the federal government because they’ve yet to exhaust the allotment from last year’s aid packages, though Congress gave districts until 2023 to finish the money off.

“This COVID relief package would throw even more money at it, even though the congressional budget office says it won’t be spent this year,” Cassidy said. “There’s not enough time to get the money out the door.”

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Some school districts around Baton Rouge have enough cash on hand to offer teachers an extra paycheck, though they’re not directly using federal aid to cover the costs.

Zachary paid for a $1,500 bonus for its teachers using surplus sales tax revenue. West Feliciana shuffled money around when the federal government covered expenses the district expected to pay for.

West Baton Rouge superintendent Wes Watts says he will ask his school board to consider teacher bonuses, at some point. Another coronavirus aid package could make that possible.

He says Cassidy’s point is misleading.

“There are some dollars that you know you’re going to spend down the road, so they haven’t come out of your account yet,” West Baton Rouge school head Wes Watts said, noting that money may be spoken-for even though it’s not been spent.

He calls lawmakers’ efforts to make a larger point about wasteful spending by implying schools have misspent money “frustrating.”

“It feels like we’re always behind the 8-ball in public education and trying to prove our metal that we’re doing good by kids,” he said, saying he’d like schools to be excluded from the political narrative. “We work so hard to make sure that every dollar we spend has an impact on students.”

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He said it would’ve been irresponsible for his district to spend its entire allotment up-front, especially because no one knew how long the pandemic would last when Congress passed the CARES Act.

“Let’s just say some other issue rises, and we’ve spend all that money... then it looks like, ‘Well, why weren’t you more responsible with the money you had?’ It’s a catch-22.”

Schools also must often wait for the state to reimburse their spending, meaning federal data indicating schools are sitting on cash would lag behind reality.

Other superintendents noted last year’s federal coronavirus aid came with serious restrictions.

“Some districts are scared to spend it,” Zachary superintendent Scott Devillier said.

Lawmakers could approve Biden’s COVID proposal as soon as next week.

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