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Federal dollars meant to keep schools open are going towards weight rooms and playgrounds

Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 8:17 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Federal taxpayer dollars meant to help schools stay open during the pandemic are being budgeted toward building playgrounds, weight rooms, and buying other athletic equipment.

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

Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team requested spending data from 28 school districts around Eastern Iowa, through public records requests. Around 24 school districts responded to our requests. Through our i9 Team analysis, the overwhelming majority of spending was on items like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), staff and hot spots for remote internet access.

However, some school districts in Eastern Iowa plan to use the money for expenses some believe are not necessarily essential to staying open. One of those 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 the $100,000 would help the district expand its playground area. He said that the district would purchase new equipment, create a walking path, concrete areas for courts and a pavilion to add learning opportunities.

“An outside learning environment would reduce the risk of viral transmission of COVID-19 by having fresh air rather than “shared air” within the indoor classroom,” Fox said. “Being outside can expand classroom opportunities which would help with social distances which would also prevent COVID-19. Physical/Social-Emotional opportunities will also keep positive attitudes as we work through COVID-19.”

Fox declined an interview with i9, stating he was too busy dealing with illnesses and covering for staff members who couldn’t make it to work.

The Oelwein Community School District also budgeted $300,000 of ESSER funding to build a playground. A video from the school district shows it’s supposed to be completed this summer.

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

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

The Cedar Rapids Community School District gave all of its staff members a bonus around $650 in December 2020, using ESSER funds. The Iowa City Community School District spent more than $5 million to buy Chromebooks, Zoom licenses, and other technology. The district also added more employees with the funds it displays online. The Clear Creek Amana Community School District spent its funds on a new position to disinfect school busses as well as tutoring services and pay for substitute teachers.

Joseph Brown, who is the Interim Superintendent for the Clear Creek-Amana School District, said expenses like playgrounds appear out of line with the original purpose of ESSER.

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

Other school districts budgeted for smaller expenses like the Decorah Community School District, who spent over $1,000 on batting helmets. The Roland-Story Community School District took advantage of the money from the federal government to create a new weight room along with other building improvements.

Documents from the district show it 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 safety. They plan to send the older equipment to the district’s middle school.

Roland-Story’s plans for spending ESSER funds also include $15,000 going toward newer and larger risers for the high school. The district said it would increase safety, but would also repurpose the current risers at the high schools for the middle school.

Districts must get approval from the state to spend ESSER funds. Jackie Matthews, who is the executive director of communications for the Illinois State Board of Education, said in an email the board denied a school district’s application to lay down new turf on a football field.

The Illinois State Board of Education requires schools to ask if the spending is reasonable and necessary. It also inquires how districts’ spending addresses the academic impact of lost instructional time to support students’ social, emotional, mental health and academic needs.

Heather Doe, who is a spokesperson with the Iowa Department of Education, said in an email the state only ensures the spending follows federal law. She didn’t give our KCRG-TV9 i9 investigative Team any examples of spending not approved.

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

Dan Goldhaber, who is an education research professor at the University of Washington, said those guidelines at the federal level are extremely broad. He said the purpose is to get the dollars out the door quickly and give schools flexibility in combating COVID, but likely needed more guidelines.

“I would have personally liked to see a little bit stricter requirement,” Goldhaber said. “So it was clear the money was going to protect student health and wellbeing and recover academically.”

KCRG-TV9′s Gabby Estlund contributed to this report.

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