IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – A school district in Wisconsin has built a new football field. In Iowa, a high school weight room is being renovated. Another in Kentucky replaces two outdoor runways – all funded by billions of dollars from federal congressional pandemic relief sent to schools this year.
The money is part of a $ 123 billion injection to help schools reopen and recover from the pandemic. But with few limits on how the funding can be spent, the Associated Press has found that some districts have used large portions to cover athletics projects they previously couldn’t afford.
Critics say this violates the intent of the legislation, which was intended to help students catch up after months of distance learning. But many schools argue that the projects support students’ physical and mental health, one of the goals authorized 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. It was meant to help students, he said, not athletic programs.
“I suspect you can stand up for anything, but the point is clear: it’s to open safely, to stay open safely, and to deal with the loss of learning,” Scott said. “These are targeted resources needed to address the fact that many kids just haven’t achieved much for about a year.”
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said every pandemic relief dollar spent on sports could be used to expand tutoring, reduce class sizes and take other steps to help students who have academic difficulties.
“Can these districts show that all of their kids are ready to graduate by the end of this year – college and career ready?” ” she said. “Otherwise, stop construction. Stop it now.
In some parts of the country, exercise equipment companies have attempted to capitalize, reaching out to coaches and school superintendents to suggest improvements.
It is impossible to know exactly how many schools are using pandemic relief for athletics. Districts are required to tell states how they spend the money, but some schools use local funds for sports projects and then replace them with federal aid – a move that bypasses reporting requirements.
The funding is part of the US bailout package signed in March by President Joe Biden that sent money to schools, giving larger shares to the poorest people. This is the latest in several rounds of funding that Congress has funneled to states to meet education needs. The PA has tracked more than $ 157 billion distributed to school districts nationwide so far.
Schools have great flexibility in how they use the money, but only three years to spend it, a deadline that has led some to seek quick purchases that won’t need ongoing funding once the money is out. federal exhausted.
When school officials in Whitewater, Wisconsin learned they were going to receive $ 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 artificial turf fields for football, baseball and softball.
Athletics officials in the 1,800 student district said the project was badly needed to replace the heavily flooded grounds. They presented federal money as a chance to solve the problem without asking local taxpayers for funding.
“If we don’t do it now with that money, I don’t know when we would ever do something like this,” athletic director Justin Crandall told the school board in May. “I don’t see us being a district that would go to a referendum for turf pitches.”
Two school board members objected, with one worrying that only $ 400,000 was being used to address student learning loss – the minimum to meet a requirement that at least 20% go for this purpose.
The board approved the plan despite these objections and the new football pitch was inaugurated 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 for the renovation of a weight room in high school. This allowed the district to double its weightlifting platforms to 12 and add new flooring with personalized branding for the school.
Superintendent Matt Patton called it a “major improvement in health and safety,” saying new floors can be sanitized more easily. He said most of the district’s federal assistance was spent on other costs, including a full-time mental health therapist, special education teachers and expanded summer learning options.
Like many others in rural Iowa, the district of about 1,000 students has attempted to return to normal functioning: it’s the return to full in-person learning and, just weeks before approving the overhaul. from the weight room, gave up a mask mandate.
The project is seen as a godsend for wrestlers and the football team, which recently boasted that 39 players had completed more than 3,300 off-season training sessions. The old material will be used at the college.
“More kids will be able to lift at the same time with better equipment,” said high school wrestling coach Leland Schwartz. “Whenever we can provide more opportunities for our athletes, those athletes will improve, which makes all of our programs better.”
The East Lyme, Connecticut School Board recently approved a plan to direct some of its federal relief towards annual operating costs, freeing up $ 175,000 to renovate a poorly drained baseball field. Some board members called for swift action to get the job done in time for the spring games.
In September, the Pulaski County School Board in Kentucky allocated $ 1 million in pandemic assistance to resurface two outdoor runways. Superintendent Patrick Richardson called it a federally funded health and wellness project, saying it “will allow our students to be taken for mask breaks, by class, in an environment sure”.
Among education advocates, spending on athletics is seen as a breakdown at all levels of government.
Federal officials did not provide clear funding guidelines, while state education departments did not control their schools’ spending, said Terra Wallin, associate director of the Education Trust. She also asked if the districts’ spending on athletics took into account what was best for the students.
Wallin said the US Department of Education should issue new guidelines and intervene before more districts make similar decisions.
“There will be districts next spring that are going to consider things like this,” she said. “There is still time to influence them and make sure the districts are doing the right thing. “
In a statement, the Education Department said it had made it clear that the funding was to be used for “reasonable and necessary” expenses in response to the pandemic. He said there is “a lot of evidence” that districts are using relief supplies to keep schools safe, including increasing access to vaccines, implementing virus testing and improving health care systems. ventilation.
“We continue to strongly encourage each district to use these funds to help address these issues, including using our back-to-school roadmap and providing guidance on how to use these funds,” he said. declared the department.
So far, there has been little pullback in sports spending. In August, Illinois education officials rejected a school’s plan to use federal money for a football field. But other states say it’s not for them to challenge school spending decisions.
The Iowa Department of Education has approved the Roland-Story weight room project, saying federal guidelines allow “capital expenditures for special-purpose equipment.”
Heather Doe, spokesperson for the agency, said funding priorities are local decisions. The department does not have the power to reject a district’s expenses, she said, unless they are “definitely ineligible.”
In Congress, lawmakers from both parties say it is wrong to use the money for sports. Democrats say that’s not what it was intended for, while Republicans say it’s a sign it wasn’t necessary.
“Congress has allocated billions more than what the CDC deemed necessary to reopen schools safely, paving the way for endemic waste and abuse,” said Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the most senior Republican of the House Committee on Education and Work.
Meanwhile, fitness companies are multiplying the selling points.
Chad May, CEO of Commercial Fitness Equipment in Eugene, Ore., Said he does an average of five new school projects every week. So far, his company has supported $ 25 million worth of weight room upgrades funded by pandemic aid, he said.
Often the calls come from underfunded districts that want the kind of facilities that their wealthier peers have, May said. But some are just looking for ways to spend their federal relief within the three-year time frame.
The high school weight room redesign in Story City, Iowa is being done by Push Pedal Pull, a South Dakota company that is undertaking similar projects elsewhere in Iowa and Nebraska.
Luke Reiland, a representative for a company in Ames, Iowa, said he had called schools to let them know the funding could be used for those kinds of costs. He sees weight rooms and fitness centers as increasingly important to schools in small towns, as they seek to prevent students from leaving for larger districts.
“I’m in the middle of the battle… to get this money,” Reiland said. “I think a lot of these little schools are trying to use that money to really improve a bunch of things, and I’m just trying to get my piece of the pie.”
AP Education Writer Binkley reported from Boston.