Matt deGrood

Matt deGrood

How often do you get the chance to decide how to spend someone else’s money?

Fort Bend ISD has launched a fascinating new initiative in local governance, asking students, parents and staff how it should spend some $94.7 million in federal funding it received through the American Rescue Plan.

Federal guidelines stipulate districts must use 20 percent of the funding on measures to address instructional time lost during the pandemic, but otherwise gives districts broad leeway in how to best use the money.

Rules also require districts to involve the public in deciding how to use the funds, such as soliciting opinions through surveys and public meetings, which means other districts in Fort Bend County will likely follow FBISD’s lead in coming weeks.

Districts must, however, spend the funds by September 2024, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Before readers and stakeholders begin that dialogue with Fort Bend County school districts, however, it’s worth considering the “broad leeway” part of the funding equation.

For as much grief as those in the federal government rightly receive these days, since the beginning of the pandemic, really, their approach toward stimulus funding has been quite inventive, at least as compared to how it’s traditionally been done.

Typically, when a local municipality receives money from the federal government, that city can only use it under a strict set of parameters. One need not look much further than funding for disaster mitigation after Hurricane Harvey for the perfect example.

Rosenberg was the only municipality in Fort Bend County to receive funding during a recent $1.2 billion dispersal, in large part because most county projects didn’t meet requirements that they benefit residents in low-to-moderate income areas that have faced repetitive storm damage, according to a Texas General Land Office (GLO) news release.

Compare that to the relative freedom of the current stimulus funding.

This is important to note, in my mind, because it’s hard to wrap one’s head around how different that is. We’ve already seen state governments use coronavirus funding in innovative and intriguing ways.

Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, for instance, used federal funds to start a $1 million lottery for those who received the coronavirus vaccine. The state’s second winner, a 40-year-old Toledo resident, said he’d been convinced to get the vaccine because of the lottery, according to a MarketWatch article.

And the state’s vaccination rate increased some 28 percent in the days after the governor announced the lottery, according to the article.

If you’re a county or a city in receipt of federal funding, the world is your oyster, so to speak. There’s nothing, in theory, stopping you from giving all of your residents a portion of the money directly.

So, as our local leaders consider what to do with once-in-a-lifetime money, I think it’s worth getting the Fort Bend County brain trust going.

The pandemic changed life as we know it, but it also battered school districts in particular, causing almost across-the-board test score declines. It’s not yet clear how quickly, or when this generation of students might recover academically.

“The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted traditional education, and the effects may take years to rectify,” said Sherry Williams, a spokesperson for FBISD.

But this is where you, dear reader, come in. Fort Bend County is, of course, one of the most diverse, educated and business-savvy counties in all of Texas.

Let’s use that to our advantage.

FBISD recently put out a survey asking residents to rank possible uses of the funding, such as learning interventions, planning time for teachers, contract tracing, mental health services, technology needs and others.

Don’t stop there, though. I have no doubt that someone in this county has an innovative solution to help our districts and students overcome struggles brought on by the pandemic.

The fact that the district is listening is important. But so, too, is an informed and attentive group of stakeholders.

So, pay attention and don’t be afraid to speak out in coming weeks. The future of education in Fort Bend County may well depend on an idea you have.

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