Federal dollars meant to keep schools open go to weight rooms and playgrounds

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) — Federal taxpayer money intended to help schools stay open during the pandemic is being budgeted for the construction of playgrounds, weight rooms and the purchase of other sports equipment.

Iowa received $697 million from the Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, also known as the ESSER, Funds. Most of those dollars have been sent or will be sent to school districts to help pay for pandemic-related expenses like masks, enhanced cleaning and ventilation systems. The funds are also intended to help children academically and improve remote learning.

Our KCRG-TV9 i9 survey team requested spending data from 28 eastern Iowa school districts through public records requests. Approximately 24 school districts responded to our requests. Through our analysis of the i9 team, the overwhelming majority of spending was on items such as personal protective equipment (PPE), staff and remote internet access points.

However, some school districts in eastern Iowa plan to use the money for expenses that some say aren’t necessarily essential to staying open. One of them is the East Buchanan Community School District. Data our i9 team received shows the district plans to spend $100,000 on “outdoor learning.”

East Buchanan Superintendent Dan Fox said in an email that the $100,000 would help the district expand its playground. He said the district will purchase new equipment, create a walking path, concrete court areas and a clubhouse to add learning opportunities.

“An outdoor learning environment would reduce the risk of viral transmission of COVID-19 by having fresh air rather than ‘shared air’ in the indoor classroom,” Fox said. “Being outdoors can expand opportunities in the classroom, which would help reduce social distancing, which would also prevent COVID-19. Physical/socio-emotional opportunities will also maintain positive attitudes as we work through COVID-19.

Fox declined an interview with i9, saying he was too busy managing illnesses and covering for staff members who couldn’t come to work.

The Oelwein Community School District has also provided $300,000 in ESSER funding to build a playground. School district video shows it’s supposed to be finished this summer.

Madison Strykowksi, who has two children in the Oelwein Community School District, said she thinks there’s a smarter use for that money.

“Maybe more things for students like courses, materials, or I don’t know, giving teachers raises,” Strykowski said.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District awarded all of its staff a bonus of approximately $650 in December 2020, using ESSER funds. The Iowa City Community School District has spent more than $5 million buying Chromebooks, Zoom licenses and other technology. The district has also added more staff with the funds it posts online. The Clear Creek Amana Community School District spent its funds on a new item to sanitize school buses as well as tutoring services and paying substitute teachers.

Joseph Brown, who is the acting superintendent of the Clear Creek-Amana School District, said spending such as playgrounds appears to be inconsistent with ESSER’s original goal.

“I’m pretty conservative,” he said. “I think ESSER money should be spent on COVID-related things and it’s hard for me to rationalize how a playground is COVID-related.”

Other school districts budgeted smaller expenses, such as the Decorah Community School District, which spent more than $1,000 on batting helmets. The Roland-Story Community School District took advantage of federal government money to create a new weight room as well as other improvements to the building.

District documents show he plans to spend $100,000 to purchase new equipment and a flooring system for the high school weight room. According to the documents, the move would increase security. They plan to send the old equipment to the district college.

Roland-Story’s plans to spend the ESSER funds also include $15,000 earmarked for newer and larger risers for the high school. The district said it would increase safety, but also reuse current high school risers for middle school.

Districts must obtain state approval to spend ESSER funds. Jackie Matthews, executive director of communications for the Illinois State Board of Education, said in an email that the board denied a school district’s request to install new sod on a field. of football.

The Illinois State Board of Education requires schools to ask if expenses are reasonable and necessary. It also questions how district spending addresses the academic impact of lost instructional time to meet students’ social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs.

Heather Doe, who is a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education, said in an email that the state only ensures that spending follows federal law. She did not give our KCRG-TV9 i9 investigative team any examples of unapproved expenses.

“Whether or not the best use of these funds is a local decision,” Doe said. “If the District determines that this is a reasonable use of these funds, the Department has no authority to deny such use unless the expense is definitely ineligible.”

Dan Goldhaber, who is a professor of education research at the University of Washington, said these guidelines at the federal level are extremely broad. He said the goal was to get the dollars out quickly and give schools flexibility to fight COVID, but he likely needed more guidance.

“I personally would have liked to see a bit tougher requirements,” Goldhaber said. “So it was clear that the money was going to protect the health and well-being of students and recover academically.”

Gabby Estlund of KCRG-TV9 contributed to this report.

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Norma A. Roth