Laptops, Personnel, Brand New Gym: Federal Funds Help Oregon School District Improve Physical and Virtual School Spaces

Principal Kristin Tokano Becker never thought she would see the day her school gets a new gym.

“It’s not something I thought I would see completed while I was watching work,” Tokano Becker said.

The current gym at Yaquina View Elementary School, part of Lincoln County School District, actually serves as a cafeteria.

“Because we need the cafe for fitness and indoor recreation, our children, before the corona virus, ate in classrooms because there was no designated place for them to eat,” Tokano Becker said.

Even the ability to hold an indoor break is limited by the size of the gym; Teachers roll carts full of board games to their classrooms because there is no room for everyone in the gym.

At an early stage of the epidemic, the country’s six-foot-high social alienation law means only 20 children can be in the gym. Still, Tucano Cattle was not sure a new gym was possible.

“It’s millions of dollars, and it’s not easy to get,” she said.

But now, this fall, Yaquina View will have a new full-size gym, paying $ 3 million in federal funds from the U.S. Rescue Program.

The new gymnasium was built at Yaquina View Elementary School in Newport, Ore, part of the Lincoln County School District. The county is paying for the new gym with funds from the U.S. Rescue Program.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Provinces across Oregon are required to withdraw some of their new, one-time federal funds from the U.S. Rescue Program, also known as ESSER III, for the treatment of learning loss. But there is no real demand for the rest of the money.

It leaves school leaders a lot of money to spend on almost everything, as long as it connects to the plague. Nurses, staff health programs, communications teams, ports, playgrounds and buses are all ways they plan to use their federal dollars.

At the same time, these dollars give some provinces, especially the smaller ones, an opportunity to address long-standing problems in response to the epidemic.

In Lincoln County, county officials plan to use federal dollars for targeted intervention and expanded learning opportunities, similar to other counties, to support students who may have lagged even further during the epidemic.

“Not all students have the same level of incomplete learning. Students are already receiving assistance from their teachers during the typical class day,” Lincoln County School Director of Business Services Kim Kusik said in an email to OPB.

Yaquina View Elementary School principal Kristin Tocano Becker, left, and Lincoln County School District Communications Coordinator Kristin Bigler at Yaquina View's current gym.  The gym is currently used as a cafeteria and gym for school students.

Yaquina View Elementary School principal Kristin Tocano Becker, left, and Lincoln County School District Communications Coordinator Kristin Bigler at Yaquina View’s current gym. The gym is currently used as a cafeteria and gym for school students.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

“However, for those students who need extra support, we wanted to provide extra learning time after school and during the summer,” Cusick said.

Lincoln County will also use some of its funds to replace lost Chromebooks, textbooks and library books.

County officials estimate they lost 350 Chromebooks, 266 elementary school textbooks and nearly 1,000 library books.

North Marion, Newberg and Pendleton school districts also described plans to purchase Chromebooks with federal funds.

The counties give priority to federal dollars for long-needed construction projects

But some of the sections may seem less related to the epidemic, though school officials insist it is an important investment. Lincoln County officials will use $ 2 million in ESSER III funds to replace and rebuild new grandstands at Newport High School.

“The existing grandstands at Newport High School were the only indoor space on the site that met the definition of open space, but could only be used in dry weather because of their dilapidated condition,” Cossick said.

Lincoln County School District will spend $ 2 million in federal dollars to build new grandstands and services at Newport High School.  County officials say the space will be used for classroom activities.

Lincoln County School District will spend $ 2 million in federal dollars to build new grandstands and services at Newport High School. County officials say the space will be used for classroom activities.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Cusick said that in turn space is limited to some elective classes and other class activities.

The director of the Oregon Department of Education, Colette Gil, said most school districts plan to spend federal dollars on capital improvement projects, similar to the one in Lincoln County.

“Overall, we saw that in 60% of the programs there were some kind of capital expenditures,” Gil said. “About 50% of the plans, these capital expenditures were based on the health and safety aspects.”

Districts have plans to make updates to outdated HVAC systems, reflecting national trends in spending. Burbio, a digital platform that tracks ESSER III spending in thousands of counties across the country, found over 40% of counties with planned spending on HVAC.

In Oregon, if a capital project costs more than $ 5,000, it needs ODE approval. To date, 650 projects have received approval to use ESSER II or ESSER III funds in more than 140 school districts and education service districts. Only a few projects were rejected.

Gil said the federal funds are giving cash-free counties a chance to make long-needed improvements.

“We’re also in a country that has a lot of counties that have long delayed maintenance on things like HVAC and school kitchens, so there was a need for upgrades before COVID-19 came along, and that did, in many ways, exacerbate that need,” Gil said.

“Not all districts were created the same”

Mark Wheaty, Baker County Superintendent for Eastern Oregon, said needs and capacity can vary greatly across different parts of the state.

“I was a little jealous when I would go, say, to a school in central Oregon or to a school in Corridor I-5, wherever the economy is booming and they have the ability to make such improvements,” Viti said.

Smaller, more rural school districts do not have as large a tax base as more urban districts.

Principal of Yaquina View Elementary School, Kristin Tocano Becker, stands in the school hallway in Newport, Org on March 24, 2022. A new gymnasium was built in Yaquina View using federal funds received by the Lincoln County School District for plague relief.

Principal of Yaquina View Elementary School, Kristin Tocano Becker, stands in the school hallway in Newport, Org on March 24, 2022. A new gymnasium was built in Yaquina View using federal funds received by the Lincoln County School District for plague relief.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

“Not all counties have been created the same,” Viti said, “as to their access to revenue or sources of revenue to be able to make the upgrades.”

Baker voters did pass school bail in May 2021. According to the Oregon School Boards Association, the county has not bailed since 1948.

Viti said the bonds, along with federal and state funding sources like the students’ investment account, will help pay for better security and air filtration upgrades to help current and future students.

“It would be a huge benefit for us, yes for the corona virus, but to be honest, flu or any other viral infection that is circulating,” Viti said. “It will allow us to get much better air quality in each of our classrooms.”

Baker received ODE approval to use federal funds in other capital projects as well – including a dishwasher, bicycle trailer and stage curtains.

“Things like this are important over time, so you have to be proud, and you want to create an environment that students and staff want to be in,” Viti said.

For a district like Baker, federal and state funding help renew schools and provide a safe and engaging environment for students and staff.

“We were already particularly challenged because of the epidemic, but those funds really managed to allow us to leverage systems, approaches to be able to serve all the children,” Viti said.

“We needed these funds and we try to leverage them to the best of our ability – not only to serve the student today but also in an attempt to understand how we can serve the students in the future.”

But not everyone wants to be in a physical class. So some of those districts that invest in physical spaces also invest in virtual spaces.

This includes Lincoln County and Baker.

“Many families have determined that online, asynchronous education is the way they would like to continue to stay,” Viti said. “So we now have platforms to be able to serve all the needs of the family, whether they want a synchronous, asynchronous education or a hybrid between the two.”

Lessons learned from the epidemic

Some counties use ESSER III dollars to build online programming – using manpower or online platforms.

Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest county, plans to invest $ 7 million in its online learning academy, a new school year program.

In her freshman year, PPS ‘Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Communities, Cheryl Proctor, said 600 students enrolled in OLA.

“We found that we were actually over-enrolled in what we were allocated and had to expand the online learning academy, which requires an additional teaching staff,” Proctor said.

“One of the things that comes out of this is this confirmation that students are learning and thriving in different environments,” said PPS chief financial officer Nolberto Delgadillo.

“Whether it’s through a community – based organization or one of our high schools or a thought about what the virtual learning environment can be and the online learning academy can move forward, I think it’s one of the exciting things … coming out of the epidemic.”

Also included in a number of district plans: efforts to retain staff through financial incentives, health plans or COVID-related leaves. Principal Gil said ODE is related to maintaining the educators ’workforce.

“Every business owner or operator in Oregon understands how challenging it is to maintain a strong workforce now with strong morale,” Gil said. “We have all kinds of challenges for our school staff who have worked very many hours to continue learning in person … in some cases they feel they are endangering their personal health, when they are in a closed space with several students each day.”

Gil argues that it is important to support the health and safety of teachers as a way to maintain the workforce of educators.

“Teaching teachers is an important part of this and finding the right ways to get teachers what they need, despite this lack of teaching,” said Northwest Education Program and Development Director Jessica Johnson.

Oregon’s director of foundations for improvement, Whitney Graves, said schools that make changes – from the way teachers communicate with families to online learning – are some of the less visible ways the epidemic has changed things in education.

“I think it opened our minds and we might long for some kids to walk down the street and get into the building,” Graves said. “But that, the inner action of things and the possibilities have changed. I’m pretty hopeful about it.”

How do you think your school district should spend those federal dollars? Email us at question@opb.org.

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