Flush with COVID-19 aid, schools steer funding to sports

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Critics say this violates the intent of the law, which was to help students learn after months of distance schooling.

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One Wisconsin The school district built a new football field. In Iowa, a high school weight room is undergoing renovation. Another two in Kentucky are replacing outdoor tracks — all funded by billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief Congress sent to schools this year.

The money is part of a $123 billion infusion aimed at helping schools reopen and recover from the pandemic. But with some limitations on how the money can be spent, the Associated Press found that some districts use large chunks to cover athletics projects they previously couldn’t afford.

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Critics say this violates the intent of the law, which was to help students learn after months of distance schooling. But many schools argue that the projects support the physical and mental health of students, which is one of the objectives permitted by the federal government.

Representative Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the US House Education Committee, said the money should not be used to fund athletics at the expense of academics. This was to help the students, he said, not the sports programme.

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“I doubt you can make a case for anything, but the purpose is clear: it’s to open safely, stay open safely, and deal with learning pitfalls,” Scott said. “These are targeted resources that are needed to address the fact that a lot of kids haven’t achieved much by about a year.”

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said every dollar spent on sports could be used for pandemic relief to expand tuition, reduce class sizes and take other steps to help students who are struggling academically. can be done for.

“Can these districts show that all of their kids are ready to graduate—college—and career-ready later this year?” he said. “Otherwise stop building. Stop it now.”

In some parts of the country, exercise equipment companies have tried to capitalize on this by contacting school coaches and superintendents to suggest upgrades.

It’s impossible to know how many schools are using pandemic relief over athletics. Districts are required to tell states how they are spending the money, but some schools are using local funding for sports projects and then replacing it with federal relief — a maneuver that meets reporting requirements. Is.

The funding is part of a US rescue plan signed by President Joe Biden in March that sent money to schools, with the bulk of those in high poverty. It is the latest in several rounds of Congress funding states to meet education needs. AP has tracked more than $157 billion distributed to school districts across the country so far.

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Schools have wide flexibility in how they use the money, but only three years to spend it, a time frame that has led some to seek quick purchases that require ongoing funding after federal funding runs out. will not be required.

When school officials in Whitewater, Wisconsin, learned they would receive $2 million in pandemic relief this year, they decided to use most of it to cover their current budget, building new synthetic turf fields for football. Freed up $1.6 million in local funding for baseball and softball.

Athletics officials of the district’s 1,800 students said the project was desperately needed to replace heavily flooded areas. He saw federal funding as an opportunity to solve the problem without asking local taxpayers for funds.

“If we’re not done with this money now, I’m not sure when we’ll do something like this,” athletic director Justin Crandall told the school board in May. “I don’t see us a district that would go to a referendum for turf areas.”

Two school board members objected, one raising concerns that just $400,000 was being used to address student learning losses—the minimum to meet a requirement that is at least 20% of that objective. Leads to.

The board approved the plan over those objections, and the grand opening of the new football field took place in September. District Superintendent Carolyn Pate-Hefty declined to answer questions about the project.

At the Rowland-Story Community School District in Iowa, when the school board voted in May to use $100,000 in pandemic relief on high school weight room renovations, there were no objections. This allowed the district to double its lifting platforms to 12 and add new floors with customized school branding.

Superintendent Matt Patton called it a “major health and safety improvement,” adding that the new floors can be disinfected more easily. He said most of the district’s federal aid went to other costs, including a full-time mental health therapist, special education teachers and extended summer learning options.

Like many others in rural Iowa, the district of about 1,000 students has tried to return to normal operation: it’s back to full learning and, just weeks before the weight room overhaul is approved, a mask. Mandate dropped.

The project is seen as a boon for wrestlers and the football team, which recently claimed 39 players did more than 3,300 workouts in the off-season. Old equipment will be used in middle school.

“With better equipment, more kids will be able to lift at the same time,” said high school wrestling coach Leland Schwartz. “While we can provide more opportunities for our athletes, those athletes will get better, which makes all our programs better.”

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The school board in East Lime, Connecticut recently approved a plan to put some of its federal relief toward annual operating costs, freeing up $175,000 to renovate a baseball field with poor drainage. Is. Some board members called for quick action to get work done in time for the Games in the spring.

In September, the Pulaski County School Board in Kentucky allocated $1 million in pandemic aid to rejuvenate two outdoor tracks. Superintendent Patrick Richardson called it a health-and-wellness project that falls under federal funding, adding that it “allowed our students to be taken outside for mask breaks, by the classroom, in a safe environment.” will give.”

Among advocates of education, athletics spending is seen as a breakdown at all levels of government.

While federal officials failed to provide clear funding guidelines, state education departments did not police their schools’ spending, said Tera Wallin, an associate director of the Education Trust. She also questioned whether the spending districts on athletics considered the best for students.

Wallin said the US Department of Education should issue new guidelines and intervene before more districts make similar decisions.

“Next spring there are going to be districts that are going to consider things like this,” she said. “There is still time to impress them and make sure the districts are doing the right thing.”

In a statement, the Education Department said it has made it clear that the funds should be used on “reasonable and necessary” expenses responding to the pandemic. It said there is “substantial evidence” of districts using the relief to keep schools safe, including increasing access to vaccines, implementing virus testing and improving ventilation systems.

The department said, “We continue to strongly encourage every district to use these funds to help address these issues, including accessing our Return to School roadmap and how to use these funds.” This includes providing guidance on this.”

So far, athletic spending has drawn little push from states, which are responsible for making sure districts spend money appropriately. In August, education officials in Illinois rejected the school’s plan to use the money on a football field. But other states say this is not their place to challenge school spending decisions.

The Iowa Department of Education approved the weight room project at Rowland-Story, saying federal guidelines allow for “capital expenditure for special purpose equipment.”

Agency spokeswoman Heather Doe said funding priorities are local decisions. The department does not have the authority to disallow the district’s expenditure, she said, unless it is “definitely unacceptable”.

In CongressMPs on both sides say that it is wrong to use money on games. Democrats say it’s not what it was meant for, while Republicans say it’s a sign it wasn’t needed.

Virginia Granthshala of North Carolina, the top Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, said, “Congress allocated more than the CDC estimated was needed to safely reopen schools, a route of rampant waste and abuse.” was paving.”

In the meantime, fitness companies are working on sales pitches.

Chad May, CEO of Commercial Fitness Equipment in Eugene, Oregon, said he’s doing an average of five new school projects each week. He said that so far, his company has taken in $25 million in pandemic aid-funded wet room updates, he said.

May said that often, the calls come from low-wealth districts wishing their wealthy peers had such facilities. But some are just looking for ways to spend their federal relief within the three-year time frame.

The high school weight room overhaul in Story City, Iowa, is being performed by Push Pedal Pull, a South Dakota company that is working on similar projects elsewhere in Iowa and Nebraska.

Luke Ryland, a company representative in Ames, Iowa, said he is calling on schools to let them know the funding can be used to cover such costs. He sees weight rooms and fitness centers as increasingly important for schools in smaller cities because they deter students from moving to larger districts.

“I’m right in the fight … to allocate this money,” Riyland said. “I think a lot of these small schools are trying to use this money to actually upgrade a bunch of stuff, and I’m just trying to get my own piece of the pie.”


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