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Navigating ESSER Fund Concerns: Practical Steps for Schools

3 ways to keep your school district’s budget in the black after ESSER funds are gone.
3 minutes

As school leaders grapple with the impending ESSER fund expiration and a looming national recession, economic concerns are beginning to grow. 

Many states have gone as far as to cut their education budgets thanks to ESSER surplus — some with no guarantee they’ll reinstate the funds when the COVID relief program ends in September 2024. 

This, combined with lagging enrollment and inflation-related salary demands from staff, means some districts are beginning to become concerned about their budgets in the coming academic years. 

For two decades, our team at K12 Insight has been working with and listening to school leaders across the country as they share their challenges and solutions for managing their districts. To offset environmental and political impacts on public education, here are three recommendations for school leaders looking to keep their budget in balance:

1. Advocate aggressively on behalf of school and community interests

Let your district community know you’re on their side by speaking publicly about known stakeholder interests. Even if nothing can be done by your district’s leadership to appease certain demands, it’s important to ensure your community knows you hear them and understand their concerns. 

If you don’t know what issues matter most to your community, spend time listening to your community gathering their inquiries, requests, and concerns. To help make listening easier, consider conducting a research-backed survey or investing in a customer intelligence solution that provides a dashboard on stakeholder feedback, including the number of stakeholders with the same or similar concerns. Sometimes the loudest voices are the only ones we hear, even if they come from a minority. Data tells the true story.      

Once you’re aware of the most pressing and common community interests, remain transparent about your ideas for your school district. Remember: all staff members, families, and other stakeholders have the same mission as you: to ensure student success. 

2. Reduce staff and student attrition by providing superior customer service 

It’s no secret that public school enrollment is dropping. Over 1.5 million students left public districts in 2021 — and fewer students means less funding. 

Students who have left for alternative education options in the past few years may not be coming back, but by providing superior customer experiences to existing students and families, school leaders will be able to maintain enrollment in coming years. In addition, families outside your district will be more likely to enroll when they see consistent trust, transparency, and quality service between district leaders and stakeholders. 

Teachers and other staff members are no exception to this rule. Education professionals deserve to work in a trusted environment where they are respected, listened to, and made part of decision-making processes. If your district doesn’t provide these opportunities, others will.    

It is critical to provide genuine, engaging, and accessible customer service for every stakeholder to reduce attrition and maintain funding. Customer experience tools, like AI-powered chatbots, can help improve equitable communications practices, provide 24/7 support, and ensure stakeholders are getting what they need when they need it — delivering superior customer service.     

3. Rely on community input to make data-driven decisions 

A budget reduction could mean program cuts or consolidations. Transparency between district leadership and stakeholders will be key in these cases. If your district needs to make dramatic changes to operations or offerings, the community needs to know from the start. 

Better yet, involve stakeholders in the decision-making process. When a community has the opportunity to share their ideas and feedback during the decision-making process, it helps them feel like they are part of the solution. Relying on community feedback to make tough but necessary choices builds trust within your district, and satisfies stakeholders who might otherwise consider leaving. 

Staff, families, and even students who feel they have a say in how and why funds are distributed will be more likely to accept the final decision — even if it wasn’t what they originally hoped for. 

On the other hand, district communities who feel they’ve been presented with choices made at the top with no opportunity to express opinions may be prone to seeking alternative education options.

It can be daunting to ask for feedback from a large number of stakeholders, but an experienced team of survey professionals can guarantee reliability and unbiased results. K12 Insight’s team of expert education researchers has helped school communities across the country plan, execute, and analyze surveys that drive districtwide decisions — even providing takeaways and statistics that can be presented at board meetings to justify specific budget choices.     

Public school districts are entering an uncertain era, ripe with potential crises and funding concerns, but by leading transparently, inviting community feedback, and making customer service a priority, your district can start to ensure a more successful future.

To learn more about how K12 Insight can help your district deliver better experiences, better engagement, and better education, request a consult today.  

By Dan Wittich
Originally published November 4, 2022 Last updated January 6, 2024