Billions in COVID relief money intended for Florida schools sitting in Tallahassee

Department of Education: ‘We’re not just putting money out for the sake of putting money out.’

ORLANDO, Fla. – The State of Florida currently has billions of dollars earmarked to help local school districts through the pandemic that has not been dispersed, according to records obtained by News 6.

Since March of 2020, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded Florida with $8.6 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER).

Updated numbers released the week of Sept. 6 show the Florida Department of Education has dispersed $1.1 billion, leaving $7.4 billion sitting in Tallahassee.

“We’re taking care of those who are taking care of our kids,” said Eric Hall, Senior Chancellor for the Florida Department of Education.

His comments came during August’s Board of Education meeting, where he said his agency is being careful about where federal COVID educational money goes.

“We’re not just putting money out for the sake of putting money out,” he said. “We’re doing it with a purpose.”

News 6 went directly to Gov. Ron DeSantis to ask why more money wasn’t being distributed to local school districts.

“We have not had requests for all of that money yet,” he said. “Basically, as we field requests, we do it.”

News 6 investigated and found out local school districts have asked for that money, and many are still waiting for it.

For example, a spokesman for Orange County Public Schools said the district has applied for $112.9 million and is still waiting.

Marion County Schools said it was waiting for $56 million, Brevard Public Schools said it was waiting for $48.8 million, Lake County Public Schools was waiting for $39.4 million and Volusia County Public Schools said it was waiting for $34.5 million.

News 6 also discovered Florida was one of two states that had not submitted a spending plan to the U.S. Department of Education on how it plans to spend the next round of ESSER funds (ESSER III), which would generate an additional $3 billion.

“For the governor to continue to Stonewall on getting this money to districts is just plain wrong,” said Andrew Spar, President of the Florida Education Association.

Spar said districts needed the money to purchase PPE, get students caught up academically and pay salaries when staff members were forced to stay home because of COVID.

“We shouldn’t be in a situation that we’re talking about not having resources when there are literally billions of dollars that the governor has that he has refused to release to school districts that could in fact, help deal with the pandemic that we’re dealing with right now,” he said.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, Florida was not alone when it came to the speed at which money was being dispersed to local districts.

While Florida has only dispersed 13% of its ESSER funds, other states have dispersed the same amount, but most had submitted plans on how they plan to spend it.

The Florida Department of Education said the money from the federal government was intended to last for several years.

“The ARP Act funds (ESSER III) are intended to last over multiple fiscal years, so we are working with a frugal mindset to ensure districts have the funds they need to address their full educational recovery over the next few years,” said Brett Tubbs, FDOE spokesman.

About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.