How Berkeley Unified spent its $24M in COVID-19 funds

Berkeleyside analyzed district data to break down how state and federal COVID-19 relief money was spent.

In the last two years, Berkeley Unified received $24 million in COVID-19 relief funds from the state and federal government broadly intended to mitigate learning loss and address the impact of the pandemic. 

The district first shared a spreadsheet it used to track spending with Berkeleyside in December, but due to the omicron surge it wasn’t until earlier this month that staff could fully answer Berkeleyside’s questions. After discussing the data with Pauline Follansbee, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, we reorganized the information and created our own categories to tell a clearer story about Berkeley Unified’s COVID-19 relief spending.

According to Berkeleyside’s analysis, $10.6 million went toward learning loss mitigation efforts and programs and services for students, like after-school and mental health; $9 million went toward teacher and staff salaries and stipends; $2.2 million went to COVID-19 testing and safety; $877,840 went to technology; and $745,287 went to consultants. 

The numbers in this story reflect Berkeleyside’s best effort to sort district spending, but some items could fit into multiple categories: Leave some wiggle room for these sorts of decisions when reading. 

The money came from state and federal sources, including the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and California’s Senate Bill 98 and Assembly Bill 86. 

Some of the funds had strict guidelines on how schools could spend it, requiring that the money go toward in-person instruction or learning recovery programs. Other funds, especially federal money, allowed districts greater leeway. Looser rules meant districts could use some funds to, for instance, fill budget gaps caused by enrollment cliffs.

With more money flowing into schools, there have been calls for greater transparency around how COVID-19 funds have been spent. 

The California State Auditor issued a report in October saying that the state’s education department failed to oversee spending around COVID-19 funds and that school districts failed to report their spending. Operating under tight timelines, some districts failed to spend their COVID-19 relief funds at all. This was not the case at BUSD. 

Berkeley Unified began allocating its COVID-19 funds last spring, announcing its spending decisions at public school board meetings. The rest of the money was approved over the course of several months, though not all of the decisions were discussed in detail at school board meetings. 

Here’s our breakdown of how the district spent its funds:

Student programs and learning loss mitigation — $10.6 million

This includes extending instructional time, the after-school program, various academic supports, costs associated with returning to in-person instruction, socially distanced graduation, meals and more. 

The biggest expense in this category was $3.8 million devoted to extending instructional time and providing academic support through an Expanded Learning Opportunities Grant

BUSD spent $1.4 million on its after-school program and another $1.4 million on Restorative Restart grants, which allowed each school to determine how it would spend $150 per student and an additional $150 for each high-needs student. 

The district also paid for the small pods of students who came back for in-person instruction ($634,000), universal meals ($407,000), classroom library books ($200,000), and more. 

The school board also earmarked $875,124 for mental health. The money paid for counselor and psychologist contractors, and $500,000 has not yet been spent.

Salaries, stipends, and professional development — $9 million

BUSD spent $3.7 million on a one-time 3.5% bonus for teacher salaries during the 2020-21 school year. The district also spent $1.9 million on stipends for in-person teaching and $2.3 million on other stipends, including those for teacher leaders, curriculum development, summer school and other additional work. It spent $240,000 to avoid laying off staff when schools were closed and $298,000 on professional development.

COVID-19 safety and testing — $2.2 million

This includes $1 million on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), $662,220 on contract nurses and $402,000 on contact tracing and testing.  

Technology — $878,840

Nearly half of this went toward IT licenses and subscriptions to online instructional programs, including Zoom, while $346,000 went toward Wi-Fi hotspots.

Consultants — $745,287

The bulk of this went to one consulting agency, RTFisher Educational Enterprises, Inc, run by Robyn Fisher. The district signed two year-long contracts totaling $600,000 with the agency to create the African American Success Framework, begin creating a data dashboard and run multiple programs for Black students, such STEM STEPS, which provides science, math, and engineering enrichment and resources for African American families.

The district also paid consultants to train staff on COVID-19 safety protocols and provide additional communication services related to the pandemic, among other things. 

New positions — $420,000

This includes two new Office of Family Engagement and Equity specialists, a data specialist, and a literacy coach for Longfellow Middle School. The district hopes to continue to fund these positions in the future. 

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.