HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Residents can now get a closer look at how the Houston Independent School District is spending nearly $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief dollars aimed at helping schools address education issues related to the pandemic.
An online dashboard made public Thursday shows Houston ISD has already decided how to spend $607.8 million of the $1.2 billion that became available through two rounds of funding in 2021 as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.
"This dashboard will allow anyone anywhere to see exactly where we are spending federal dollars. A core commitment of our strategic plan is building trust and reliability for our families and community. We believe that being fully transparent with how the district is spending its ESSER funds - which are public dollars - is a big step toward that goal," Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said in a news release.
The biggest allotment of funding so far is nearly $88 million for "Average Daily Attendance Hold Harmless."
Statewide, there are 66,570 fewer students enrolled in public schools this year compared to when the pandemic began at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of state enrollment data. Houston ISD is down about 15,400 students this school year.
In Texas, funding is tied to enrollment, which means whenever a district's enrollment declines, so does the funding it receives from the state. After the pandemic, the Texas Education Agency implemented a "hold harmless" agreement that allowed districts to continue to receive funding based on their pre-pandemic enrollment, but that stopped this year.
The second highest allocation at HISD from the federal funding is $83 million to heating, ventilation and air conditioning, although none of those funds have been spent yet, according to the dashboard, which is an effort by the district to provide more transparency on how taxpayer funding is spent.
In an interview with 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg in March, House said gaining the community's trust is a top priority.
He brought up the ongoing FBI investigation into the district's former chief operating officer Brian Busby, who was indicted earlier this year in an alleged bribery scheme that took place from 2013 to 2019.
Busby is accused of accepting kickbacks, including cash payments, from a contractor who allegedly overbilled the district for work that was not performed. The alleged kickbacks, which totaled $6 million over seven years, took place before House joined the district as superintendent last year.
House said he's committed to helping the district gain back the community's trust and ensure them the district is being financially responsible.
"When you have something like that that has occurred, it takes time to show people that you're genuine, that you're trying to build the trust, that you're going to spend dollars responsibly moving forward," House told us in March. "So it's a double-edged sword that we're faced with quite frankly. It's a sword of ensuring that we shore up our district from a financial standpoint, and on top of that, ensure that we continue to grow this district with the kind of experiences and students that we deserve as well."
The dashboard outlining how federal funding will be spent shows a $50.8 million allocation for stipends for HISD employees and teachers, about half of which has already been spent or encumbered.
In his five-year strategic plan announced in February, House said he's committed to making sure all 276 Houston ISD campuses have the same basic resources to provide each student with the same baseline experience, ultimately creating a more equitable education system across all zip codes.
The plan, which initially offers competitive pay and bonuses to attract talent and retain teachers won't be cheap and could lead to discussions about possible layoffs or low enrollment school closures.
In March, House said the federal relief dollars allowed the district to provide raises for educators.
But, 65% of the district's overall $2.2 billion budget goes toward salaries, which means any tough cuts once the federal funding runs out could result in cutting teachers or closing campuses - a struggle House said he's faced at past school districts.
"The idea is that tough decisions are going to have to be made," House said in March.
Overall, about $436 million, or roughly 39% of funding, will go toward equitable opportunities and resources as part of the district's strategic commitment. Nearly 33% of funding will be toward "trust and reliability for our families and communities," nearly 15% will go toward high quality teaching and learning, about 10% for talent at all levels, 3.4% for improving services for students with exceptional needs and less than 1% for "great schools in every community."
Specifically, the dashboard also shows that $34 million has been allocated for middle school student laptop devices, $34 million for campus-based tutoring, $22 million for fine arts assets and supplies, $19 million toward expanded libraries, $17 million toward bussing operations, $15 million to help expand social work and counseling services and $22 million for COVID health costs and enhanced cleaning.
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