Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark
To unlock nearly $84 million in COVID-relief money, the Newark school district submitted a budget with dozens of expenses tied to its recovery efforts. But tucked away in the spending plan are a number of purchases, amounting to nearly 12% of the federal aid, that have no clear connection to the pandemic.
The expenditures include $6 million for new athletic fields and gym floors, $2.4 million for security cameras, about $536,000 for floor-polishing machines, and $25,000 to produce “inspiring” school recruitment videos, according to the district’s federal aid application.
Those and other expenses with tenuous ties to recovery account for only a fraction of Newark Public Schools’ relief money, much of which the district has allocated to address student learning loss and mental health challenges. The district defended the purchases, which the state education department approved in July, saying they fall within the broad set of uses authorized by federal law.
Newark’s schools chief has called the federal windfall a chance to make much-needed district improvements and urged community members to “not stay stuck on COVID-19” as they dreamed up ways to use the money. But experts say that spending the aid on projects that aren’t directly related to the pandemic flouts the intention of the law, which was to help schools safely reopen and students bounce back from the pandemic’s adverse effects.
“The primary purpose of these dollars is to meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs,” said Allison Rose Socol, an assistant director at the Education Trust, an advocacy group that promotes educational equity. If districts are putting the unprecedented federal aid to other uses, she added, then “that points to the need for more transparency and accountability.”
A few other districts also proposed expenditures not clearly linked to COVID. And Chalkbeat identified an additional red flag in Newark’s aid application: Its proposed budget does not account for roughly $1 million of the funding the district is set to receive. Neither the district nor the state responded to questions about the omission.
Newark, New Jersey’s largest school district, is set to receive more than $281 million through three federal aid packages meant to help schools respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout. Newark has budgeted much of that huge sum for instructional, safety, and staffing needs directly tied to the pandemic.
For instance, the district spent its first pot of about $21 million last year on necessities such as Chromebooks, school sanitizing supplies, and pay for educators to work with students on the weekends, according to its funding application. Its plan for the second federal infusion, some $84 million, includes money for textbooks, classroom technology, building improvements, and pay for teachers, nurses, and custodians, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis of the nearly 75 budget items in the district’s application.
But the district intends to spend a portion of the money on expenses with no obvious tie to the pandemic, including:
- new gym floors to replace ones which, prior to the pandemic, officials found were emitting mercury vapors;
- some 5,000 new security cameras and a $145,000 truck with a lift to install them;
- six new patrol cars for school safety officers;
- equipment at high school entrances to scan students for contraband and weapons;
- a professional videographer to produce “authentic, inspiring recruitment videos” for schools;
- $185,000 for “district vehicles”;
- and 50 machines, priced at about $10,700 each, to polish school floors.
Critics say such items are a misuse of the relief money.
“Students and staff who are looking to recover from COVID couldn’t care a rat’s ass if the floors are shiny or not,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, adding that teachers should get bonuses for their hard work during the pandemic.
Newark’s application for the second funding package, called ESSER II, does not explain how those items address COVID’s impact on students and schools. District spokesperson Nancy Deering declined to provide explanations to Chalkbeat, only saying that the application was approved and “you can refer to the allowable uses section of the grant for further assistance.”
Expecting schools to face wide-ranging needs during the pandemic, Congress put few restrictions on the billions of dollars in COVID aid it sent to states and school districts. But as reports emerged that some districts spent part of the money on projects unrelated to the pandemic, such as football fields and weight rooms, some lawmakers said such spending violates the spirit if not the letter of the law.
“I suspect you can make a case for anything,” U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott told the Associated Press, which reported on districts steering COVID money to athletic projects. “But the purpose is clear: It’s to open safely, stay open safely, and deal with learning loss.”
Chalkbeat also analyzed the funding applications submitted by several other large districts, including Elizabeth, Jersey City, Passaic, and Tom’s River. Like Newark, the districts allocated most of their money for pandemic-related expenses, including ventilation upgrades, laptops, and summer or after-school programs to make up for disrupted learning.
However, some spending plans were difficult to assess because they provided few details. For instance, Trenton allocated $3.6 million for “supplies to support students,” and Edison set aside $4.4 million for unspecified renovations. Neither district’s superintendent responded to Chalkbeat’s request for more information.
Paterson Public Schools’ application included a few items with unclear connections to COVID, including $442,000 for additional security officers. A district spokesperson said the extra guards were needed to reopen schools this September, which was one goal of the federal aid.
All the applications were approved by the New Jersey education department, whose website clearly states that the relief money was meant to help schools safely reopen, address student learning loss, and take “other actions to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on educators, students, and families.”
Department spokesperson Michael Yaple declined to comment on any specific application, but told Chalkbeat that states do not have the authority to dictate how school districts spend the pandemic relief money. Instead, districts can put the aid toward any use that meets their local needs and complies with federal law.
He added that the state education department reviews all grant applications, and districts must affirm that they will follow federal regulations. The department audits each district annually, and, on an ongoing basis, closely monitors how a subset of districts spend their federal aid.
“If the department determines that a district spent funds for an unallowable use, the district will be subject to a corrective action plan,” which could include reimbursing improperly spent funds, Yaple said in a statement.
Anne Hyslop, director of policy development at the education advocacy group All4Ed, said states must help ensure the relief money is put to good use.
“They also need to be monitoring how districts are spending funds and flagging things that are questionable,” she said, adding that every purchase should be put to a simple test: “How are these funds benefiting students?”
Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León has been open about his desire to use the federal aid for more than just pandemic recovery. In April, he called the money “our opportunity of actually fixing and changing the history of the school system,” adding that “the sky’s the limit.”
“I want to thank everyone who has assisted in thinking about what we should do with these dollars,” he said at a May 25 board meeting, “whether it’s pools that are in our schools, fields that our students demonstrate their genius in sports, as well as the incredible work that we know needs to occur in our schools.”
León later shared highlights of the district’s COVID spending plan, which he said was informed by public input. At last month’s school board meeting, he listed a number of planned uses, including tutoring, high-speed internet in schools, and programs to help students manage their emotions.
However, he left out some of the questionable expenses, such as patrol cars and the videographer, and did not give dollar amounts. By contrast, neighboring Elizabeth Public Schools released a 56-page document with detailed descriptions and cost estimates for each use of its pandemic aid.
Vivian Cox Fraser, president of the Urban League of Essex County, said she is excited about Newark’s plans for tutoring and new equipment for high school vocational programs. But she and other civic leaders said they want the district to release the full plan; the teachers union filed a records request for an itemized list of the district’s pandemic expenditures.
“I don’t know how and what they’re spending their money on,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP.
Christine Pitts, a fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said districts’ spending plans should be easily accessible for the public to analyze and identify any dubious purchases.
“I really am concerned that more people aren’t talking about this and that it’s not being flagged in the spaces where it should be,” she said. “Where does the public hold systems to account?”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.