What do vegetable gardens and new turf for football fields have to do with battling COVID in schools? That’s exactly what Congress would like to know when it received a disturbing report on how school boards across the country are mishandling COVID relief funds.
According to reports on Sunday, schools across the country lacked oversight in the distribution of the funds leading to new nature centers and turf fields instead of technology and mental health services. Congress approved just over $190 billion in aid to go to school districts in need, but many schools reportedly avoided detailing requirements.
A school board in Wisconsin stood out as a prime example of relief fund abuse. The Whitewater, Wisconsin school board voted to use 80 percent of its $2 million relief grant to revamp its sports team’s fields.
When asked why the funds should be used for athletic fields instead of educational projects, Whitewater High School Athletic Director Justin Crandall told the school board that he did not envision the district as one “that would go to a referendum for turf fields.” Rather than put Crandall’s theory to the test, the school board decided instead to bill the American people for the projects.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) condemned schools like Whitewater for their decision to undermine the intentional use of the funds.
“I suspect you can make a case for anything, but the purpose is clear — It’s to open safely, stay open safely and deal with learning loss,” he said regarding the relief money. “These are targeted resources needed to address the fact that a lot of children just didn’t achieve much for about a year.”
This comes after the inspector general for the Department of Education warned programs were needed to prevent such misuse or abuse of the funds. He stressed steps must be put in place “to ensure that the programs are not subject to waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the December 2020 COVID package, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Congress approved $190.5 billion in aid to school districts. Notably, the entire Department of Education budgets for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 were $72.7 billion and $73.6 billion, respectively. The funds from each bill are being distributed in accordance with Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In an effort to address the “unfinished learning” cited by McKinsey, federal guidelines require local education agencies to allocate at least 20 percent of the $122.7 billion provided in ARPA for learning recovery.
Given the serious consequences of the pandemic on both students and the economy, every penny of these funds must be spent effectively and efficiently. These and other examples of waste across the country show the pitfalls of federal relief programs and the need for greater oversight. Many of these abuses came after the Department of Education Office of Inspector General warned that the agency needed to take steps “to ensure that the programs are not subject to waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Meanwhile, more rounds of relief funds are still being disbursed throughout the country, still with little or no oversight.