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A student in a pink coat and fuzzy hat and mask is led in school by a masked teacher with a line of students following.
Experts say that Michigan districts can ensure they spend COVID aid well by asking families and teachers how the federal funds should be spent.
Courtesy of Renee McCaul

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Michigan schools are getting billions in COVID aid. Where is it going?

Proof that $6 billion in federal education aid can transform schools is already on display across Michigan, from expanded summer programs to upgraded buildings to new staff hired to help students cope with the pandemic.

But most of the COVID relief spending is still to come — as of December, districts have spent roughly 10% of the total federal funding — and the public still doesn’t have a clear picture of how the money will be spent.

Some districts have responded to the challenge by reaching out to ask about community priorities and promising to keep the public informed about their spending.

Other districts are putting in less effort. Experts say that lack of communication could damage public support for schools at a moment when students desperately need the kind of intervention schools can give only with extra funding.

And the public needs to know what intervention works – and what doesn’t.

“We don’t know what districts are doing with their ESSER funds,” Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, said. “We won’t be able to understand how we’re going to help kids accelerate during and post-pandemic unless we understand what districts are doing.”

If schools don’t practice transparency, students could lose out. The money, much of it received through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), isn’t just a critical tool to help students through a time of historic upheaval. The funds amount to an enormous real-world experiment in education spending that will likely shape funding debates for years to come. If educators spend the money well, it will help them make the case for more funding after COVID dollars run out.

As districts prepare to ramp up spending, the Detroit Free Press and Chalkbeat are partnering to shed light on how the state’s schools are investing this critical influx of cash.

Reporters reviewed 50 school district and charter school websites, a mix of suburban, rural and city districts, and found that only a handful provide any information online about spending.

Schools must engage community members and make spending plans accessible online under U.S. Department of Education rules for the largest round of funding, but there is no timeline for sharing those plans. School leaders said they want to share with their community how the money is being spent, particularly so they can show how it can improve public education.

“It’s important that we use these funds to meet students’ needs,” said Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools. “We need to show as educators that we can be wonderful stewards of money when we receive it.”

What does successful spending look like?

Experts say transparency and community engagement are especially important because effective COVID spending may prove difficult to judge. Improvements in students’ mental health aren’t easily measured, for instance. What’s more, districts’ needs vary widely, and they can’t be expected to spend the money the same way.

Still, “there are criteria for the process: It’s transparency and accountability. It’s genuine engagement with communities,” said Tyler Thur, assistant director of the Office of K-12 Outreach at Michigan State University.

Districts still have plenty of time to share their plans and get their communities involved, even though it’s been more than a year since Congress approved the first round of relief funding, in March 2020. Congress sent COVID aid to schools in three major waves, and the third, largest wave of funding hasn’t even gone out to Michigan districts yet. The deadline to submit plans for the third wave is mid-December, but districts can amend their plans after that as new needs arise. The last dollars won’t be spent until 2025.

So far, many districts are doing the bare minimum to communicate with the public about their spending priorities.

The review of websites in communities of all sizes across Michigan found that a handful of large urban districts — notably traditional districts in Detroit and Grand Rapids — had posted detailed spending plans on their websites. Detroit also held 15 community forums in the spring and summer, said district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.

But little or no information was available on most of the 50 district websites. There are more than 800 school districts and charter schools in Michigan.

Experts say the massive scale of the funding means districts should ensure that information about their spending is widely available, including online.

Craig Thiel, research director at Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said districts should post explanations of their spending online, not just dollar amounts.

“It’s the largest federal investment in public education history,” he said. “I think taxpayers will want to know where those dollars are going.”

That information shortfall is reflected in the way some districts have laid plans to spend the funds.

Under federal law, districts are required to “meaningfully consult” with the public — including teachers, students, and parents — about their plans to spend the third and largest wave of money. Practically speaking, that could mean simply discussing the plans at a school board meeting or inviting public input through a survey.

“We’ve definitely not been in the loop about” federal COVID aid, said Owen Bondono, Michigan Teacher of the Year 2020-21, who teaches English at Oak Park High School in suburban Detroit. “It’s sort of like, everyone waits for the next board meeting to see where those funds are going.”

Some Michigan districts are finding creative ways to build their spending plans on community feedback.

Over the summer, Ypsilanti Community Schools sent staff members into neighborhoods twice a week to ask community members what they wanted out of the district’s roughly $33 million in federal aid. Staff handed out popsicles in parks and, in one case, set up a food truck.

Everywhere they went, they asked people what needed to be different about Ypsilanti schools this year.

The outreach campaign — called “Boots on the Ground” — confirmed for district leaders that parents were particularly interested in intensive tutoring and other programs that help students get back on track academically.

But it also turned up some new ideas: A surprising number of parents asked for water bottle filling stations, said Superintendent Zachery-Ross. The district installed them using federal funds.

“There were some things that we hadn’t even thought about from students’ perspectives and parents’ perspectives, that were wins. We didn’t know those were the things that were valued.”

“It’s not too late” to do outreach, she added. “The important thing is to get the feedback.”

A district with $150 million to spend

Flint Community Schools has not provided any documents specifying where the district has spent tens of millions of dollars from the first two rounds of funding more than three months after The Detroit Free Press and Chalkbeat requested the information. District officials have said broadly they’ve spent money on laptops for students, $22,500 bonuses for every staff member, and personal protective equipment.

Federal funding has mainly gone to districts through the Title I formula, which is calculated to send more money to districts with higher populations of students from low income families, because these districts often have higher needs.

Flint received the most money per student of all districts in the state, more than $27,000 per student, in COVID relief funding, the last and largest round of funding.

In all, Flint has about $150 million to spend from three rounds of federal funding. According to documents presented in district school board meetings, Flint has been reimbursed for at least $22 million in federal funds.

But finding how that money has been spent is more difficult.

Reporters requested documents from the district detailing spending on Sept. 7. A district official first directed a reporter to the district’s budget transparency page, where schools must post the current year’s budget under state law. Flint’s page lacked any of the required budget documents for the current fiscal year or any of the information on federal spending reporters requested.

When a reporter explained that the transparency page did not fulfill the request, nor did it include documents showing COVID relief spending, district officials wrote that they would send the information. They failed to send anything that detailed specific spending or intended spending, even though it’s likely such documents exist.

Board members, for instance, have referred multiple times to documents with line items for spending in meetings in October and November. Why the public does not have access to those documents or who within the district maintains these records remains unclear.

A man with glasses and a suit speaks into a microphone with his name on a placard in front of him.
The assistant secretary/treasurer of the Flint board of education Adrian Walker before a meeting at Accelerated Learning Academy in Flint, on Dec. 8.
Junfu Han / Detroit Free Press

Kevelin Jones, Flint’s superintendent, said the district is working toward transparency and offered a broad overview of federal relief spending.

“What we have spent that money on is wages, benefits, contracting services, maintenance and repairs, PPE supplies for our scholars,” he said.

The district has also publicized the staff member bonuses and it is acquiring enough laptops so every student will have one at school and at home. The district has not provided total amounts spent on either initiative.

Discussion from school board meetings over the past three months offers clues about where money might be going.

But the meetings have also been subject to increasingly rancorous debate among board members over district spending, including debate over COVID relief funds.

Board members have said in meetings that they find the district’s general processes for spending money opaque.

The district has weathered multiple controversies over general spending this year, including an ongoing investigation into questionable payments made to Flint’s longtime law firm, which was billing the district close to $1 million annually for more than a decade, an amount an attorney investigating the billing practices called “extreme.”

During one debate on Oct. 20 over a $53,000 grant for student career planning for the district, which included college tours, board members questioned sparse details provided to them about the grant. Treasurer Laura MacIntyre said the material didn’t indicate how the money would be spent for the tours.

“I’m not going to go in and sign a check register when I don’t have the invoices and I can’t see what’s on it,” she said. “This is woefully inadequate in terms of information being provided for us to approve.”

Similarly, MacIntyre has questioned proposed COVID relief spending, including a plan to authorize $44 million.

She said in a Nov. 3 meeting that she found several items on the list for spending “really troubling.” The list was not shared with the public. The Free Press reached out to MacIntyre but did not receive a response.

Among her concerns were what she said were $10,000 stipends for data technicians over three years and stipends for a handful of administrators, directors, and administrative assistants for taking on extra duties, she said. The amounts of the stipends for administrators weren’t discussed.

Federal guidance states that funds “generally will not be used for bonuses, merit pay, or similar expenditures, unless related to disruptions or closures resulting from COVID-19.”

A budget official said in the meeting that the stipends for data technicians were intended to reward programmers who did extra work getting virtual school off the ground. Jones said the stipends for directors and administrators would pay for extra work put on staffers due to unfilled positions.

MacIntyre also questioned a $180,000 intercom system. A district official said a safety assessment showed some of the district’s existing intercom systems need to be replaced in case of an emergency in schools.

Despite MacIntyre’s concerns, the spending plan went through.

The board unanimously voted to authorize spending the $44 million.

The district still has the majority of its relief funding to spend.

In late November, Flint launched a more energized effort to communicate to the public, announcing 10 public forums to ask community members how to spend $99 million in COVID relief funds, signaling a stepped-up effort to communicate with the public.

Jones was first appointed as interim superintendent in Flint in September, then permanently appointed to the role on Nov. 18.

Although the district has been mired in financial controversy in the past, he said he wants to move forward to rebuild trust. Part of that effort will include conversations with community members about how to spend the federal cash still coming in, in ways that benefit students.

“It is my goal to be 100% transparent about what has happened in this district,” he said.

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