Sixth-grader Hayden Hampton works on an English assignment identifying the roots of words Feb. 13, 2020 in Westcliffe Colorado. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here:

As Colorado school districts braced for budget cuts, Gov. Jared Polis gave them a $510 million lifeline in the form of federal coronavirus relief money. School district administrators around the state say they’re grateful, but also struggling with the restrictions that come with the money.

Polis has said repeatedly that he intends to give districts as much flexibility as possible, but federal rules deem that it be used by the end of the calendar year for purposes related to COVID response. The Colorado Department of Education has yet to issue guidance specific to this pot of money, though it has weighed in on another pot of federal money for K-12 schools.

“The last thing I want to do is get time for the audit, and they say, ‘Oh, you have to send this money back because you didn’t use it right,’” said Tom Satterly, superintendent of the Burlington district on Colorado’s eastern plains. “That would be devastating. I get tired of hearing, ‘be creative.’ I’ll get creative and have to send back $400,000.”

The money comes from the state’s $1.67 billion in federal relief money to cover COVID response and economic recovery. In an executive order, Polis gave $510 million to the state’s K-12 schools and specifically connected it to the state’s economic recovery. The executive order mentions improving remote learning, helping schools follow public health measures, facilitating social distancing, and making up for lost learning during school closures as among the allowed uses.

“The allocation to school districts is not as flexible as state funding, but we look forward to working with them to make sure they can use every dollar by the end of the calendar year in ways that are allowed under the CARES Act and consistent with their needs,” Polis said.

The legislature has seized on the CARES Act allocation to downplay the impact of state budget cuts. The state plans to spend about 15% less on K-12 education next year, and average per pupil spending will go down by about 5%, though the impact on each district varies. The federal money cannot be used to backfill or offset cuts to general operating expenses.

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