• K-12 public school districts in North Carolina have received about $6 billion in federal funds to help address the coronavirus pandemic
  • On average, since last March, school districts have spent about 11% of funds appropriated for Covid relief
  • The low level of expenditures raise legitimate questions about the nature of the emergency and how federal dollars are spent

What a year it has been. The coronavirus pandemic coupled with the government’s heavy-handed response have brought unprecedented challenges and changes to K-12 public education in North Carolina.

Simply put, the pandemic and economic shutdown spawned a host of ominous scenarios, all of which cast a very gloomy future for public education in North Carolina. The questions were real. Could a stumbling economy generate sufficient revenue for schools? Would schools have the funds to address the expected higher costs associated with an economic downturn? Costs were expected to be higher from having a higher percentage of children living in poverty (for example, more free lunches) and because expected lower staff turnover would mean higher costs in salaries and benefits.

Those fears propelled federal legislation and federal money, lots of it — about $6 billion in Covid-19 relief aid for K-12 public schools came to North Carolina.

Federal aid came to North Carolina via three major aid packages: $773 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, $1.6 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), and $3.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

What needs to be highlighted and not forgotten is that coronavirus aid for North Carolina public schools was accumulating as the economy was improving. In April 2020, unemployment in North Carolina had reached 13.5%. By August 2020, the economy was beginning to move, hiring was picking up, and unemployment had declined to 6.8%. Federal funding from the CARES Act helped to stave off layoffs and cutbacks and allowed many school districts to think about life after Covid.

By last fall the state and national economy continued to rebound. Unemployment in December 2020 declined to 6.1%, schools continued to reopen, and many thought they had dodged a bullet. CRRSA brought over $1 billion dollars to North Carolina and helped schools address the immediate impacts of Covid.

Then earlier this year, as the economy continued to improve, and unemployment in North Carolina dropped to 5.2%, President Biden signed a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, which designated $3.6 billion to North Carolina schools, 90% of which was scheduled to go to local school districts to address the impact of the pandemic.

Throughout spring, public school enrollment was stabilizing, and the economy continued to improve. In June state economists forecasted an additional $6.5 billion in state revenues through the next biennium. The announcement led to a flurry of spending and tax-cutting proposals. Meanwhile, federal Covid relief money continued to pile up.

So how much money have school districts received for Covid relief?

To answer that question, we use LEA allotment and expenditure data supplied by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

The following table ranks Covid relief fund allotments and expenditures by school district for the period from March 2020 through May 31, 2021. The table also provides information on balance of unspent funds, Covid funding per student, as well as median household income per school district. Data for Covid fund allotments, expenditures, and fund balances were provided by DPI. Calculations for school district funding per student were made by author. Figures for median household income per school district were compiled from U.S. Census Bureau.

Federal Covid-19 Relief Funding and Expenditures by N.C. School District

LEAFY 2020 and FY 2021 YTD Covid ExpendituresTotal AllotmentTotal $ Balance% Remaining ADMAllotment Per Student
Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Schools$50,740,010.80 $527,084,716.00 $476,344,705.20 90.37%146,255$3,603.87
Wake County Schools$28,504,406.29 $369,867,416.00 $341,363,009.71 92.29%160,622$2,302.72
Guilford County Schools$35,830,660.70 $330,954,041.00 $295,123,380.30 89.17%70,903$4,667.70
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools$19,244,946.38 $247,647,610.00 $228,402,663.62 92.23%53,399$4,637.68
Cumberland County Schools$19,759,853.34 $214,132,080.00 $194,372,226.66 90.77%49,579$4,319.01
Durham County Schools$14,914,859.24 $172,008,629.00 $157,093,769.76 91.33%32,596$5,276.99
Robeson County Schools$8,455,810.17 $165,125,476.00 $156,669,665.83 94.88%21,064$7,839.23
Gaston County Schools$15,110,973.99 $118,151,457.00 $103,040,483.01 87.21%30,711$3,847.20
Pitt County Schools$10,372,408.93 $114,124,343.00 $103,751,934.07 90.91%23,286$4,900.99
Johnston County Schools$11,187,919.09 $113,958,871.00 $102,770,951.91 90.18%36,772$3,099.07
New Hanover County Schools$7,172,867.69 $95,484,703.00 $88,311,835.31 92.49%25,617$3,727.40
Wayne County Schools$10,605,596.63 $93,466,294.00 $82,860,697.37 88.65%17,845$5,237.67
Onslow County Schools$13,236,740.70 $92,300,129.00 $79,063,388.30 85.66%26,535$3,478.43
Alamance-Burlington Schools$9,610,406.89 $85,595,708.00 $75,985,301.11 88.77%22,827$3,749.76
Buncombe County Schools$8,743,763.33 $83,816,052.00 $75,072,288.67 89.57%23,415$3,579.59
Harnett County Schools$9,427,079.34 $82,327,888.00 $72,900,808.66 88.55%19,940$4,128.78
Rowan-Salisbury County Schools$7,168,398.25 $76,814,848.00 $69,646,449.75 90.67%18,585$4,133.16
Union County Schools$8,187,661.46 $71,079,477.00 $62,891,815.54 88.48%41,452$1,714.74
Cleveland County Schools$6,166,055.76 $63,842,595.00 $57,676,539.24 90.34%14,032$4,549.79
Nash County Public Schools$6,656,861.60 $62,998,486.00 $56,341,624.40 89.43%14,910$4,225.25
Wilson County Schools$4,817,477.55 $61,785,922.00 $56,968,444.45 92.20%10,870$5,684.08
Craven County Schools$4,544,286.37 $58,082,127.00 $53,537,840.63 92.18%13,104$4,432.40
Iredell-Statesville Schools$7,084,738.29 $55,595,660.00 $48,510,921.71 87.26%20,356$2,731.17
Cabarrus County Schools$14,821,543.10 $55,432,428.00 $40,610,884.90 73.26%33,586$1,650.46
Randolph County Schools$5,426,528.32 $54,556,863.00 $49,130,334.68 90.05%15,644$3,487.40
Lenoir County Schools$3,816,123.41 $52,732,046.00 $48,915,922.59 92.76%8,389$6,285.86
Davidson County Schools$5,975,863.54 $51,056,595.00 $45,080,731.46 88.30%18,435$2,769.55
Rockingham County Schools$3,172,757.65 $47,538,065.00 $44,365,307.35 93.33%11,450$4,151.80
Catawba County Schools$4,643,841.88 $46,308,168.00 $41,664,326.12 89.97%15,656$2,957.85
Duplin County Schools$3,928,385.29 $44,474,996.00 $40,546,610.71 91.17%9,612$4,627.03
Brunswick County Schools$4,794,990.68 $44,421,079.00 $39,626,088.32 89.21%12,444$3,569.68
Sampson County Schools$4,147,468.30 $42,791,616.00 $38,644,147.70 90.31%7,908$5,411.18
Vance County Schools$4,500,187.36 $40,517,834.00 $36,017,646.64 88.89%5,271$7,686.93
Burke County Schools$6,549,774.71 $39,963,134.00 $33,413,359.29 83.61%11,809$3,384.13
Wilkes County Schools$3,220,232.64 $39,646,854.00 $36,426,621.36 91.88%8,885$4,462.22
Henderson County Schools$4,967,462.96 $38,793,473.00 $33,826,010.04 87.20%13,231$2,932.01
Richmond County Schools$3,128,436.41 $37,295,976.00 $34,167,539.59 91.61%6,879$5,421.71
Rutherford County Schools$2,945,000.23 $36,723,635.00 $33,778,634.77 91.98%7,548$4,865.35
Hoke County Schools$4,819,571.56 $35,679,913.00 $30,860,341.44 86.49%8,722$4,090.79
Caldwell County Schools$4,000,767.00 $35,390,305.00 $31,389,538.00 88.70%11,096$3,189.47
Scotland County Schools$3,226,371.33 $35,031,257.00 $31,804,885.67 90.79%5,540$6,323.33
Franklin County Schools$3,508,876.26 $34,076,742.00 $30,567,865.74 89.70%8,053$4,231.56
Bladen County Schools$3,016,010.78 $33,257,250.00 $30,241,239.22 90.93%4,060$8,191.44
Edgecombe County Schools$2,665,202.56 $32,745,213.00 $30,080,010.44 91.86%5,584$5,864.11
Lee County Schools$3,380,643.64 $32,507,611.00 $29,126,967.36 89.60%9,800$3,317.10
Moore County Schools$3,827,529.76 $30,954,042.00 $27,126,512.24 87.63%12,743$2,429.10
Columbus County Schools$2,735,481.18 $30,361,043.00 $27,625,561.82 90.99%5,309$5,718.79
Beaufort County Schools$3,997,967.54 $28,872,348.00 $24,874,380.46 86.15%6,235$4,630.69
Pender County Schools$3,214,043.31 $28,446,008.00 $25,231,964.69 88.70%9,476$3,001.90
Lincoln County Schools$4,227,384.25 $27,499,580.00 $23,272,195.75 84.63%11,346$2,423.72
Stanly County Schools$3,377,222.75 $27,045,091.00 $23,667,868.25 87.51%8,270$3,270.26
Surry County Schools$2,997,759.50 $26,692,485.00 $23,694,725.50 88.77%7,371$3,621.28
Elizabeth City/Pasquotank County Schools$2,440,767.66 $25,458,178.00 $23,017,410.34 90.41%5,159$4,934.71
Halifax County Schools$1,777,315.60 $25,133,580.00 $23,356,264.40 92.93%2,181$11,523.88
Haywood County Schools$1,608,656.44 $23,944,016.00 $22,335,359.56 93.28%7,009$3,416.18
Carteret County Schools$3,534,146.11 $23,768,569.00 $20,234,422.89 85.13%7,964$2,984.50
Granville County Schools$2,860,172.74 $23,647,500.00 $20,787,327.26 87.90%7,166$3,299.96
McDowell County Schools$2,273,730.97 $22,433,246.00 $20,159,515.03 89.86%5,874$3,819.07
Chatham County Schools$2,751,892.21 $21,085,933.00 $18,334,040.79 86.95%8,972$2,350.19
Greene County Schools$2,579,529.20 $21,059,358.00 $18,479,828.80 87.75%2,831$7,438.84
Kannapolis City Schools$3,201,431.91 $20,458,311.00 $17,256,879.09 84.35%5,365$3,813.29
Person County Schools$2,125,128.53 $17,925,961.00 $15,800,832.47 88.14%4,281$4,187.33
Macon County Schools$2,167,254.88 $17,528,685.00 $15,361,430.12 87.64%4,409$3,975.66
Asheboro City Schools$1,853,077.55 $17,467,297.00 $15,614,219.45 89.39%4,505$3,877.31
Lexington City Schools$1,662,540.57 $17,410,921.00 $15,748,380.43 90.45%3,010$5,784.36
Stokes County Schools$2,779,974.49 $16,703,112.00 $13,923,137.51 83.36%5,714$2,923.19
Yadkin County Schools$2,259,120.46 $16,167,881.00 $13,908,760.54 86.03%5,004$3,230.99
Montgomery County Schools$1,758,805.56 $15,990,368.00 $14,231,562.44 89.00%3,651$4,379.72
Anson County Schools$1,469,859.79 $15,977,836.00 $14,507,976.21 90.80%3,109$5,139.22
Thomasville City Schools$1,487,066.32 $15,932,619.00 $14,445,552.68 90.67%2,249$7,084.31
Hertford County Schools$1,037,439.63 $15,579,899.00 $14,542,459.37 93.34%2,611$5,967.02
Northampton County Schools$1,410,909.33 $15,522,561.00 $14,111,651.67 90.91%1,400$11,087.54
Martin County Schools$1,479,433.60 $15,397,504.00 $13,918,070.40 90.39%2,744$5,611.34
Orange County Schools$1,978,114.22 $14,812,114.00 $12,833,999.78 86.65%7,358$2,013.06
Davie County Schools$1,790,076.44 $14,435,982.00 $12,645,905.56 87.60%6,049$2,386.51
Hickory City Schools$1,124,266.12 $14,432,266.00 $13,307,999.88 92.21%4,049$3,564.40
Alexander County Schools$2,003,092.45 $14,399,489.00 $12,396,396.55 86.09%4,720$3,050.74
Whiteville City Schools$1,469,157.28 $14,068,275.00 $12,599,117.72 89.56%2,170$6,483.08
Chapel-Hill/Carrboro City Schools$2,726,628.68 $13,879,552.00 $11,152,923.32 80.36%12,270$1,131.18
Bertie County Schools$1,304,544.00 $13,764,386.00 $12,459,842.00 90.52%1,973$6,976.37
Cherokee County Schools$1,330,415.12 $13,503,217.00 $12,172,801.88 90.15%3,070$4,398.44
Jackson County Schools$1,487,707.28 $13,221,590.00 $11,733,882.72 88.75%3,567$3,706.64
Warren County Schools$1,385,058.09 $12,578,273.00 $11,193,214.91 88.99%1,776$7,082.36
Clinton City Schools$1,187,714.34 $12,556,308.00 $11,368,593.66 90.54%2,940$4,270.85
Transylvania County Schools$1,091,647.46 $12,399,520.00 $11,307,872.54 91.20%3,311$3,744.95
Asheville City Schools$1,281,340.29 $12,054,128.00 $10,772,787.71 89.37%4,297$2,805.24
Roanoke Rapids City Schools$1,206,953.66 $11,939,902.00 $10,732,948.34 89.89%2,730$4,373.59
Ashe County Schools$1,150,870.67 $11,798,933.00 $10,648,062.33 90.25%2,899$4,070.00
Caswell County Schools$865,257.98 $11,436,422.00 $10,571,164.02 92.43%2,308$4,955.12
Washington County Schools$1,037,809.59 $11,026,392.00 $9,988,582.41 90.59%1,162$9,489.15
Watauga County Schools$2,073,966.65 $10,429,483.00 $8,355,516.35 80.11%4,618$2,258.44
Mooresville City Schools$1,407,478.80 $9,633,356.00 $8,225,877.20 85.39%5,900$1,632.77
Avery County Schools$1,068,188.37 $9,571,189.00 $8,503,000.63 88.84%1,889$5,066.80
Newton-Conover City Schools$1,241,053.38 $9,514,127.00 $8,273,073.62 86.96%2,888$3,294.37
Madison County Schools$1,058,389.02 $9,390,578.00 $8,332,188.98 88.73%2,226$4,218.59
Dare County Schools$1,441,082.88 $9,309,502.00 $7,868,419.12 84.52%5,235$1,778.32
Weldon City Schools$722,214.61 $9,169,646.00 $8,447,431.39 92.12%743$12,341.38
Edenton-Chowan County Schools$896,802.75 $8,633,471.00 $7,736,668.25 89.61%1,872$4,611.90
Yancey County Schools$1,144,751.78 $8,153,576.00 $7,008,824.22 85.96%2,040$3,996.85
Currituck County Schools$1,215,583.83 $7,270,898.00 $6,055,314.17 83.28%4,153$1,750.76
Perquimans County Schools$730,518.22 $7,102,721.00 $6,372,202.78 89.71%1,620$4,384.40
Mount Airy City Schools$988,346.08 $6,952,528.00 $5,964,181.92 85.78%1,603$4,337.20
Mitchell County Schools$834,295.44 $6,793,307.00 $5,959,011.56 87.72%1,803$3,767.78
Polk County Schools$728,381.87 $6,778,683.00 $6,050,301.13 89.25%2,096$3,234.10
Alleghany County Schools$712,375.59 $6,245,210.00 $5,532,834.41 88.59%1,358$4,598.83
Jones County Schools$607,082.96 $5,981,962.00 $5,374,879.04 89.85%1,012$5,911.03
Swain County Schools$754,823.78 $5,926,947.00 $5,172,123.22 87.26%1,897$3,124.38
Pamlico County Schools$898,005.41 $5,828,113.00 $4,930,107.59 84.59%1,236$4,715.30
Clay County Schools$557,070.24 $4,967,521.00 $4,410,450.76 88.79%1,268$3,917.60
Graham County Schools$559,718.05 $4,752,720.00 $4,193,001.95 88.22%1,123$4,232.16
Gates County Schools$1,068,039.70 $4,644,042.00 $3,576,002.30 77.00%1,557$2,982.69
Elkin City Schools$440,758.60 $3,195,743.00 $2,754,984.40 86.21%1,208$2,645.48
Tyrrell County Schools$408,454.35 $3,118,554.00 $2,710,099.65 86.90%569$5,480.76
Hyde County Schools$296,017.79 $3,026,158.00 $2,730,140.21 90.22%531$5,698.98
Camden County Schools$558,504.63 $2,338,669.00 $1,780,164.37 76.12%1,850$1,264.15
Totals$533,928,022.69 $5,262,684,966.00 $4,728,756,943.31 89.85%
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Expenditure and Allotment Data.

What do we learn from these data?

The size of the total allotments largely tracks with the size of the district, since the distribution of Covid funds generally mirrored the distribution of Title I funds. The larger allotments, by and large, went to the larger districts. This finding is somewhat intuitive since larger districts generally have larger numbers of Title I students.

What is also immediately noticeable, however, is that districts have spent only a fraction of the funds allotted for Covid relief. Of the approximately $5.2 billion that has been appropriated for Covid relief, school districts have spent about $553 million, or slightly more than 10% of appropriated funds. On average, North Carolina school districts have spent only 11% of the funds allotted to them for Covid relief. Conversely, about 89% of funds school districts have received for Covid relief remain unspent. The average Covid aid distribution per LEA is about $45.7 million; the average allotment per student among all groups was about $4,369.

Of the top ten school districts with the largest Covid-aid allotments, the average percentage of unspent funds is 91%. The percentage of remaining fund balances range from 94.8% (Robeson County) to 87.2% (Gaston County). Among the same group, the average Covid aid per student was $4,449.

Conversely, of the ten school districts with the smallest Covid allotments, 85.5% of fund balances remains unspent, while 14.5% of allotted funds have been spent by these schools. Percentage of unspent balances range from 90.22% (Hyde County Schools) to 76.12% (Camden County Schools). Average allotted Covid spending per student for these schools with the lowest allotments was $3,997.

Any analyses quickly come to the fundamental question emerging from these data: Why are school districts spending such a small percentage of Covid-related funding?

When I asked for a comment on these developments, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction provided a multiparagraph email description of the federal legislation, gave general directions about how school districts can and cannot use the money, and provided thoughts on the long-term impacts of the pandemic. Here is a part of DPI’s response:

You’ll see in some of the timelines given above that much of this money can be spent over the course of the next three years, so there is quite a decent runway (in terms of calendar) to work with. Some of the funding also has not been appropriated by the GA, therefore it cannot be used. Further, there are also stipulations around how the funds can be spent.

It goes without saying that the pandemic had short term and long-term impacts, and the PSUs understand that the negative impacts will take time to reverse. Much thought and intentionality has gone, and will continue, to go into how these funds will be used within districts based upon the needs of students and stipulations of the law.

I appreciate the DPI response; however, it appears that DPI did not read my question. It is true that federal aid has been distributed via three federal aid packages and that money can be spent over years. It is also true that there may be short- and long-term costs associated with reversing the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. This table, however, only deals with current allotments, funds that have already been appropriated and how much of those funds have been spent.

The DPI response shed little light on why school districts have spent such a low percentage of federal funds appropriated for Covid relief. That funding was justified based on a public emergency and the need to deal with current needs and their aftermath. The low spending levels by districts, the multiyear spending plans and extensive discretion local districts enjoy regarding spending, are patterns inconsistent with the concept of emergency funding. It does, however, raise the question: with the pandemic winding down and the emergency largely behind us, what will the remaining funds be used for?

Six billion dollars in funding is more than a lot of funding. It is an amount that cannot only help address the needs of schools and students during the pandemic, but also – if used wisely – help transform education. The developments discussed here underscore the need for full accountability and complete transparency when tracking federal funds. Only then will it be possible for educators and policymakers to determine how $6 billion in Covid funding was spent, and more importantly whether the money was effective in helping schools, parents, and students address the coronavirus pandemic.