Bella DiMarco, a policy analyst at FutureEd, an education think tank affiliated with Georgetown University, has written an informative report on how North Carolina schools, are spending local ESSER funds. 

DiMarco’s analysis suggests that many North Carolina school districts – especially small and rural districts —  are using the majority of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER Funds) on short term personnel commitments focused on short term fixes, rather than on hiring additional staff which would necessitate new financing when federal funding expired in 2024.

So, will those districts be spared the momentous staffing decisions that many large districts will likely face? Not exactly. Writing in the education web site The 74 Million, DiMarco seemed to imply such districts will be better off, but not necessarily spared the day of reckoning. She writes

North Carolina districts and charter schools have spent nearly $369.3 milion of their final round of ESSER funding on staff salaries, with about one-third of the money going to classroom teachers. An additional $50.2 million went for recurring extra payments to attract and retain highly effective educators. These salary supplements are typically set at the local level and paid for with local funds. Though bonuses represent North Carolina’s largest ESSER expenditure, teacher salaries emerged among the top spending priorities in two-thirds of local education agencies.

We found that the number of North Carolina teachers supported by federal funds rose by 23% between 2018-19 and 2022-23 — an increase of 1,300. But the total number of teachers statewide has declined slightly, by 720, from pre-pandemic levels. This suggests that at least some ESSER money has funded existing educators, not new personnel. 

While some districts might be paying existing staff with ESSER dollars to free up other funds, our analysis indicates the statewide student-teacher ratio has declined, from 15.1 in 2018-19 to 14.7 in 2022-23. Pandemic funds may have made it possible for school districts to keep teachers they might otherwise have had to let go due to student enrollment declines.

This doesn’t necessarily mean all these positions will automatically disappear when the ESSER money runs out. “You don’t know the counterfactual, which might be that the district would have hired for that new position anyway and used other spending for it,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research and a FutureEd research adviser. “I think it probably indicates that some of those teachers are, in fact, going to go when ESSER disappears. But you don’t know that for sure.”

For more on how North Carolina public schools are spending covid funding, see here and here.