Lincoln Public Schools looked into the possibility of using its federal COVID-19 relief dollars for across-the-board teacher bonuses last year, but said the Nebraska Department of Education advised stipends would not be an acceptable use of the funds.
LPS sought guidance in May 2021 from the state about whether it could allocate a portion of the $61.4 million it received in the third wave of federal coronavirus relief for incentive pay, which has been used by school districts to retain and recruit staff during the ongoing teacher shortage.
The advice the district received said any stipends would have to be tied to "additional time spent working due to COVID, but an across-the-board 'bonus' would not be OK," according to communication between the state Department of Education and LPS.
That's because the U.S. Department of Education generally does not consider "bonuses, merit pay or similar expenditures" acceptable uses of the funding unless they're tied to disruptions or closures related to COVID-19, the guidance said.
The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March 2021, included $122 billion for a third iteration of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
The advice on allowable use of funds raised questions about how Omaha Public Schools — which saw a mass exodus of teachers this summer — was able to use its ESSER money for stipends.
OPS is giving full-time staff $4,500 a year and part-time staff $2,250 a year over the next two school years, the Omaha World-Herald reported. The money would be distributed in three payments over the course of the year.
The state recently approved the first year of stipends, which will come from OPS' pool of ESSER dollars.
Elkhorn Public Schools and Westside Community Schools in Omaha are also moving ahead with bonuses with staff but are using extra funds the districts received because of accounting errors by the Douglas County Treasurer's Office.
Nebraska Department of Education spokesperson David Jespersen said the apparent discrepancy in guidance comes down, in part, to semantics.
The first wave of ESSER money approved in March 2020 was specifically tied to reopening schools, while more funding was approved in December to tackle learning loss and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.
The third wave could be used for a variety of purposes, from investing in staff capacity to expanding summer and afterschool programming. Jespersen said stipends or something similar "is an appropriate and acceptable use" of that money as long as it's tied to teacher recruitment or retention, which could be interpreted as being related to the pandemic.
LPS officials maintain they would be hard-pressed to prove that exists here since the district has not had the same staffing issues as Omaha-metro districts.
"While we have had some staffing challenges, it would once again be open to interpretation whether we would have a staffing crisis," said Associate Superintendent for Instruction Matt Larson. "We don't believe we have a certified staffing crisis."
If LPS wanted to revisit stipends, it would have to amend its spending plan for the ESSER dollars and run it past the state once more, but officials say they've received mixed signals.
"At this time we have not been given clear direction from the Nebraska Department of Education that using ESSER funds to pay for staff bonuses or stipends would be reimbursed or approved," LPS Superintendent Paul Gausman said in a statement to the Journal Star.
That doesn't mean the funds have not been used to compensate teachers, Larson said.
LPS has paid bonuses to teachers who take part in additional planning time, professional development and afterschool tutoring as part of efforts to catch up students who fell behind during the pandemic. The district also expanded summer school offerings and increased pay for teachers who covered additional classes.
Officials also looked into the idea of lengthening the school day with the funding, but teachers were largely opposed.
Deb Rasmussen, president of the Lincoln Education Association, commended the district for at least looking into the idea of stipends. She concurred that it would be hard for the district to prove the stipends were for COVID-related reasons.
"It's not necessarily pandemic-related recruitment challenges," she said. "It's a nationwide teacher shortage that's been going on for years."
Zach Hammack, a 2018 UNL graduate, has always called Lincoln home. He previously worked as a copy editor at the Journal Star and was a reporting intern in 2017. Now, he covers students, teachers and schools as the newspaper’s K-12 reporter.
Superintendent Paul Gausman said the district was aware of "disagreements about what was actually said" at a required professional learning session for some staff led by transgender speaker Ryan Sallans.
Elliott Elementary School second grade teachers (from left) Elizabeth Pistulka, Amy Pinegar and Emma Dickey talk about lesson plans Friday. School begins Monday for students at Lincoln Public Schools, where the district was still looking to hire about 22 certificated staff members last week.