$84 million in COVID-19 relief funds left for Hamilton County Schools: Here’s how it’ll be spent

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Larry Grohn, Rhonda Thurman and Gary Kuehn sit at a Hamilton County school board meeting on Oct. 20, 2022.

Hamilton County public schools have approximately $84 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding left to spend.

Around 40% of it -- $33 million -- will be spent on building the new Tyner Middle High Academy if the Board of Education approves the district's amended spending plan Thursday.

In total, the state allocated roughly $142 million in COVID-19 relief funds to the district. The funds are part of the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Democrats in Congress in 2021 to help schools mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

District spokesman Steve Doremus said the funds will be used to prepare for, respond to and prevent impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The recommendations were made based on community and stakeholder feedback about identified needs throughout the district," Doremus said by email.

School Board Chairwoman Tiffanie Robinson, an independent of Chattanooga, said there aren't many surprises in the updated spending plan.

"We mapped out how all these funds would be used pretty much in 2021," Robinson said in a phone call. "The district was very methodical, pretty much out the gate, when they came to the board."

The funding was received in three disbursements. The first, a $10 million allocation, has already been spent. Another $10 million remains from the second allocation, which was a total of $40.5 million. Those funds must be spent by June 30, 2023. The third and final allocation, of which $72 million of $91 million remains, must be spent by June 30, 2024.

Using a portion of the COVID-19 relief dollars to construct the new Tyner Academy building was always part of the plan, Robinson said.

But recently, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank in Nashville, criticized the district for using COVID-19 dollars to build the new school, saying students and academics should be the priority, not new buildings.

Robinson said Hamilton County Schools officials are using the funds appropriately and legally.

"We are following the guidance provided by the state on how we utilize these funds," Robinson said. "If board members felt differently about it, we would be discussing it, and we wouldn't be approving the budget that we have approved and wouldn't be approving the way that the district is utilizing these funds."

Other big-ticket items on the spending plan include $8 million for after-school tutoring and around $7 million for summer programming, which will be ongoing expenditures due to the state's third grade retention law.

The law requires districts to hold back students who aren't meeting third-grade-level literacy expectations. However, students can avoid being held back if they receive additional tutoring during the summer and/or throughout their fourth grade year.

Hamilton County Schools will have to come up with other funding sources if officials want to continue the programs after COVID-19 dollars sunset in 2024.

"The district has identified the programs that we need to be able to carry over and move into our operating budget," Robinson said. "But then when it comes to tutoring, say for third grade reading retention, we do not know how we're going to fund that yet."

Spending plan

— $46 million - foundations (Tyner building, technology and software, COVID-19 response team and nurse hotline, charter school allocations)

— $22 million - academics (early literacy, curriculum materials, substitute expenses)

— $10 million - educators (teacher retention, differentiated compensation, professional development, teacher stipends)

— $6 million - student readiness (student and family supports, post-secondary preparation, mental health, English language learners)

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.