Q&A: Jason Udstuen on ESSER Funding

Billions of dollars in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds remain available for schools and districts to spend to address pandemic learning loss and invest in programs to open and operate safely. These emergency funds offer schools and districts the flexibility to address their critical areas of need as they support their students, educators, and families.

The funds obligated to states and public school districts for the ESSER I, II, and III periods have amounted to approximately $190 billion. For ESSER III, the final and biggest round of funds at $122 billion, the deadline to commit to spend funds is September 30, 2024, with a deadline of January 28, 2025, to actually spend.

Understanding the upcoming deadlines and usage of available ESSER funds can be complicated, so we turned to an administrator who is well versed on how to apply and wisely spend these relief funds. Joining us for a Q&A is Jason Udstuen, Chief School Business Official for Gavin School District 37 in Ingleside, Illinois.


Jason, what’s your overall impression on ESSER Funding?

ESSER was truly historic when you consider that in the United States the responsibility of educating and funding schools has always been left up to the individual states. In short, this was the Federal Government “placing their money where their mouth was” and providing the necessary educational funds to educate all children remotely.


How do I know if my school has funding available? 

I make a concerted effort to provide our school district staff with financial information. This information comes in many forms, but specifically I want staff to be fully aware of the grant dollars our district has available, grant opportunities available at both the state and federal levels, and vital budgetary information so that all stakeholders are aware the tax dollars we have available to improve the facilities and instruction our district delivers.

The most efficient way for staff to learn about what their district has available in terms of funding and opportunities is to simply schedule a meeting with their district’s business manager. I know that scheduling a meeting seems antiquated, but the business department handles these funds and grant opportunities daily and is fully aware of what exists for staff and students.


How can we determine if all our district’s funding been allocated? For context, there is a lot of chatter out there around 80 percent of school districts having already spent their funds, yet Burbio is reporting differently. Perhaps you could comment on the allocated vs. spent from your experience.

Based on my own experience, I find it difficult to believe 80 percent of school districts have no ESSER Funds available. For example, I began the year in my tiny school district that serves 700 students/100 staff members with $590,000 remaining in ESSER III. This year, I anticipate having another $180,000 remaining, and our district only received around $1.2 million. There were school districts that received more than $40 million in just ESSER III. Fully allocating all that money in less than three years, with all the changes that have occurred throughout these last three years, would be a tremendous challenge.

Again, scheduling a meeting with your business manager would be the most effective way to determine what funds are still available. I know those in our role can seem intimidating but we’re also a wealth of information!


What kinds of things qualify for ESSER spending? 

Of all the grants I write and are associated with, ESSER is the most “liberal” regarding the items you’re eligible to spend money on. For instance, my district has employee salaries, purchased services, curriculum licenses, and an enormous amount of school supplies that have been purchased with ESSER funds.


I have an idea of what I’d like to spend funds on…what now? 

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but schedule a brief meeting with your business manager. Be prepared with the following items: detailed quotes from reputable vendors, specific items (licenses, books, computers, etc.), and a plan for when these items need to arrive. I always encourage staff members to have the 5 Ws in mind regarding all purchasing:

  • Who benefits from these items?
  • What are these items for?
  • Where do you want these items delivered?
  • When do you need these items?
  • Why will these items benefit the district and student? (This is the most important “W”!)


Why is ESSER funding unique? 

It’s because the funds can be spent more liberally than any other grants I have ever written. Also, at least in Illinois, 80 percent of money for schools comes from local governments, 15 percent comes from the state, and less than 5 percent comes from the federal government. ESSER funds turned this funding model on its head. For example, my tiny district receives $6 million from local taxes, another $3 million from the state, and we received more than $2 million from the three ESSER allocations. This will most likely never happen again.


Will new funds be coming?

I don’t see the federal government ever contributing to schools like this again. Something catastrophic would have to happen in my opinion.


Is it possible our use of ESSER funds could be deemed unqualified after we’ve spent the money?

No. All grants must be written with specific guidelines in mind, all grants have an approval process, and funds can’t just be deemed unqualified after all rules and regulations have been followed. 


What departments do I need to collaborate with on ESSER spending?

If a business manager is doing his or her job correctly, they approach all financial items with collaboration in mind — whether it’s getting ESSER allocations approved at board meetings, reaching out to stakeholders to learn what items they need to be successful, or having detailed financial discussions with administrative leadership teams to prioritize what’s most important for students and staff. 


What’s your No. 1 tip for schools so we don’t miss out on available funds?

If you’ve read this far, I don’t think my answer will shock you. Start by scheduling a meeting with your business manager and be sure to come prepared with the 5 Ws. After all, education is salesmanship. No one wants to believe that but it’s true. As an educator, you’re “selling” your kids on the importance of your curriculum. You’re “selling” your community on your abilities and commitment to kids. You’re “selling” your administration on district needs.

As a business manager, I need to be as objective as possible and follow a philosophy that guides my educational approach:

  • “Focus on the issue, not my opinion on the issue.” 
  • “Attack the problem, not the person.”
  • “Communicate my feelings assertively, but not aggressively. Express them without blaming.”
  • “Standards Culture can only be established by one person.”
  • “Accountability — treat everyone fairly.”


* * *


Thank you, Jason! You’ve provided great insight and valuable information on a topic of significant importance to schools and districts across the country. 

If you want to secure ESSER funding for your initiative, creating a proposal is the first step. Access our easy-to-use ESSER Funds: Proposal Planner. We’ll walk you through three simple steps to ensure your proposal has all the information you need and provide you with resources to make your initiatives stand out.

If you would like to learn more, click this link for a free on-demand webinar that featured Jason and two other experts discussing “Using Your ESSER Funds Wisely for Fall.”

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