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Florida schools are slow to spend $693 million in federal coronavirus aid

State education commissioner Richard Corcoran says they need to start putting in requests for the money. Just 10 percent of it has been claimed a quarter into the school year.

As Florida schools prepared to reopen this fall, worries over whether they’d have adequate supplies to handle coronavirus complications topped the list of concerns.

To help cover the costs, which might otherwise cripple districts' already tight budgets, the federal government provided $693.2 million in CARES Act money to Florida schools. State officials crafted a detailed but broad-ranging list of 14 “allowable activities” for spending the money, including cleaning and sanitizing materials, educational technology and other items to “maintain the operation of and continuity of services.”

District officials statewide wondered if the amount would be enough.

Yet with nearly one quarter of the school year passed, they had yet to claim 10 percent of the fund. As of Oct. 16, the state Department of Education reported having disbursed $68 million of the total. Close to half of that activity — $29.3 million — came from financially strapped Hillsborough County, which has been working to cut its expenses and bolster its bottom line however possible.

The only other districts to have received more than $1 million were Osceola, Okaloosa, Hernando, Santa Rosa, Marion, Indian River, Collier, Brevard, Bay and Alachua. Except for Osceola County, all were less than $3 million.

“It is being noticed,” education commissioner Richard Corcoran recently told superintendents.

His clear message to the district leaders: “Spend it.”

The reason, Corcoran explained, is that from the administration’s perspective, public education is driving the state’s economic engine. If the schools did not reopen, he said, the economy would be “in the tanker. ... We are the ones that are bringing back the money, bringing back the revenue.”

As such, he suggested, education could stand to see a stable budget, if not an increase, in the coming fiscal year. More money could come in the governor’s proposals for “stuff that is transformational,” such as rededicated focus on early years literacy, he said.

But the system can’t keep claiming to driving the economy, or justify a professed need, if it has millions of dollars sitting unused.

“There’s not even a chance we can win that argument,” Corcoran said.

After that conversation, some activity began.

Pinellas County finance officials, who had requested reimbursement for $880,798 of the district’s $23.7 million allocation, submitted a reimbursement request for an additional $3.7 million on Wednesday, spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas said.

The district expects to draw down most of the funds during the current fiscal year, she said, paying for such things as nurse salaries, protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

“We have two years to use the money,” Mascareñas added.

Pasco County schools so far had received $252,442 of its $14.6 million allocation. District spokesman Steve Hegarty said that figure did not represent amount the district has spent on virus-related responses.

“We’ve already spent millions,” Hegarty said. “But we have to put together the formal request.”