IOWA CITY, Iowa – One Wisconsin school district built a new football field. In Iowa, a high school weight room is getting a renovation. Another in Kentucky is replacing two outdoor tracks – all of this funded by the billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief Congress sent to schools this year.
The money is part of a $123 billion infusion intended to help schools reopen and recover from the pandemic. But with few limits on how the funding can be spent, The Associated Press found that some districts have used large portions to cover athletics projects they couldn’t previously afford.
Critics say it violates the intent of the legislation, which was meant to help students catch up on learning after months of remote schooling. But many schools argue the projects support students’ physical and mental health, one of the objectives allowed by the federal government.
Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the U.S. House education committee, said the money shouldn’t be used to fund athletics at the expense of academics. It was meant to help students, he said, not sports programs.
“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,” Scott said. “These are targeted resources needed to address the fact that a lot of children just didn’t achieve much for about a year.”
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said every dollar of pandemic relief spent on sports could be used to expand tutoring, reduce class sizes and take other steps to help students who are struggling.
“Can these districts show that all their kids are ready to graduate at the end of this year – college- and career-ready?” she said.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many schools are using pandemic relief on athletics. Districts are required to tell states how they’re spending the money, but some schools are using local funding for sports projects then replacing it with the federal relief – a maneuver that skirts reporting requirements.
The funding is part of the American Rescue Plan signed in March by President Joe Biden that sent money to schools, giving larger shares to those with higher poverty. It’s the latest of several rounds of funding Congress funneled to the states to address education needs. The AP has tracked more than $157 billion distributed so far to school districts nationwide.
Schools have wide flexibility in how they use the money but only three years to spend it, a deadline that has led some to look for quick purchases that won’t need ongoing funding after the federal money is gone.
When school officials in Whitewater, Wisconsin, learned they would be getting $2 million in pandemic relief this year, they decided to use most of it to cover their current budget, freeing up $1.6 million in local funding to build new synthetic turf fields for football, baseball and softball.
Two school board members objected, with one raising concerns that just $400,000 was being used to address student learning loss – the minimum to meet a requirement that at least 20% goes toward that purpose.
The board approved the plan over those objections, and the new football field had its grand opening in September. District Superintendent Caroline Pate-Hefty declined to answer questions about the project.
In the Roland-Story Community School District in Iowa, there were no objections when the school board voted in May to use $100,000 in pandemic relief on a high school weight room renovation. That allowed the district to double its weightlifting platforms to 12 and add new flooring with customized school branding.
In a statement, the Education Department said it has made clear the funding must be used on “reasonable and necessary” expenses responding to the pandemic. It said there’s “ample evidence” of districts using the relief to keep schools safe, including by increasing access to vaccines, implementing virus testing and improving ventilation systems.
“We continue to strongly encourage every district to use these funds to help address these issues, including by using our Return to School Roadmap and by providing guidance on how to use these funds,” the department said.
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