Missoula, MT (KGVO-AM News) - It was revealed this week that Montana and all other public schools in the country only have until September 30 to spend billions of COVID-era dollars through a program called ESSER that was distributed to their schools.

KGVO News spoke to Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen about the startling realization that state schools must basically ‘use it or lose it’.

Montana Schools Must Spend the ESSER Funds by September 30

“$600 million came into Montana for COVID relief, and it came in through three different portals,” began Arntzen. “We were one of the first states to get the first dollars and $40 million went out in June of 2020. Then we also received another bucket of about $170 million. And then we have close to $360 million dollars that are going to be expended next year.”

Arntzen said state public schools will have wide discretion on how and where to spend the remaining COVID relief funds.

Arntzen had Suggestions on how to Spend the ESSER Funds

“A lot of the money has come in for students,” she said. “In other words, it could be for a new curriculum, it could be for a device. It could also be for a teacher, an extended tutor. It also could be for a physical change to a building which could be new windows, it could be an air conditioner, it could be an air quality system or it could be for a new water system. There are so many things even broadband; for heightening digital into our public schools that could happen through these dollars.”

Arntzen said her OPI staff is already helping especially the smaller and understaffed school districts to find ways to use those funds before the September 30 deadline.

“So we are I would say, about 35 days away from that deadline,” she said. “We have a great team here at the Office of Public Instruction in a relationship with our very small districts. They have very small staffs. Sometimes the superintendent is also the principal, the lead teacher as well as the bus driver, right? So they are also working very diligently to see what these monies could be spent for.”

Arntzen said Schools Must 'Use it or Lose it'

Arntzen sent a sobering message to over 400 school districts that once this money is gone it can never be replaced.

“The state formula of how we fund our public schools is given by the legislature and to have Congress and the Department of Education give all these monies to schools,” she said. “Use them wisely, use them to invest in the future, but do not expect that these dollars will be given again by the federal government or by the state or by local taxpayers. So we're really careful in our messaging to make sure that these are an investment; a gift, so let's unwrap them carefully. Let's use them for the best for our children's future.”

The acronym ‘ESSER’ stands for Elementary and Secondary School Relief.

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