Public school districts in North Carolina have received about $5.3 billion in COVID-related relief from the federal government. But, on average, school leaders have spent just 13% of that money.

That’s according to an analysis of data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction compiled by Dr. Bob Luebke, senior fellow for the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.

“The low level of expenditures raise legitimate questions about the nature of the emergency and how federal dollars are spent,” Luebke said.

North Carolina’s share of federal aid for K-12 schools came from three sources: $773 million from the CARES Act, $1.6 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and, most recently, $3.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan. 

Luebke examined LEA allotment and expenditure data from March 2020 through June 2021. The data show that school districts have spent about $708 million of the nearly $5.3 billion allotted, leaving an unspent balance of nearly $4.6 billion.

North Carolina’s two largest school districts — Wake County Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — have spent just 8% and 15% of their allotments, respectively.

“The low spending levels by districts, the multiyear spending plans, and extensive discretion local districts enjoy regarding spending are patterns inconsistent with the concept of emergency funding,” Luebke noted. “It does, however, raise the question: With the pandemic winding down and the emergency largely behind us, what will the remaining funds be used for?”

Luebke says tracking and accountability mechanisms are needed to know how the remaining $4.6 billion will be spent over the coming years.

“These are funds that, if used wisely, could be transformational for public education,” he said.

In an emailed response, DPI communications director Blair Rhoades said school districts have a long runway to spend the funds through 2024.

“Some of the funding also has not been appropriated by the [General Assembly], therefore it cannot be used,” Rhoades said. “Further, there are also stipulations around how the funds can be spent. It goes without saying that the pandemic had short-term and long-term impacts, and the [public school units] understand that the negative impacts will take time to verse. Much thought and intentionality has gone, and will continue, to go into how these funds will be used within districts based on the needs of students and stipulations of the law.”

Taking years to spend down emergency federal aid is nothing new in North Carolina. For example, after Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016, the federal government allocated $236 million to help low- and moderate-income North Carolinians rebuild. But two years later, the state had spent none of the funds.