Indiana schools are slated to get a surge of nearly $3 billion in federal coronavirus relief over the next three years. The money is meant to help them safely operate and make up for the instruction students missed out on. But months after the stimulus began flowing, public information on how local districts are spending it is inconsistent and often hard to find.
The unprecedented aid holds the promise of helping students by paying for crucial support like tutors, social workers and longer school days. Schools can also use it to invest in areas that have long been underfunded — from repairing ventilation systems to updating class materials.
Yet, advocates and policymakers say that without clear information from school districts, it is hard for the public to know if the money is benefiting students. It also hampers efforts to scrutinize spending for misuse.
"We have a tremendous upside opportunity to invest these funds and use them in wise ways,” said Indiana Rep. Ed Delaney (D-Indianapolis), who called on the state to do more to guide school districts in how they spend the aid and encourage them to share details of their spending.
"You have a responsibility to spend the money in a way that invests for the public — not to be frightened of it or not to hide it,” Delaney said.
The temporary aid was included in three federal stimulus bills that Congress passed during the pandemic, and districts have until late 2024 to spend it. School systems with larger shares of children from low-income families received more money, and advocates say schools should focus their spending on helping students who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Local districts are responsible for deciding the best use for the money. And because the funding does not have many restrictions, schools can use it to respond to unexpected challenges, such as paying stipends to bus drivers to help get students to school amid a crippling labor shortage.
But a number of schools across the country have already faced scrutiny, for example, for spending the federal money on athletic facilities.
Federal requirements, local decisions
Experts and advocates are far more worried that schools will miss the opportunity to use the money in ways that benefit students than that people will commit fraud and abuse. In part, that’s because the state and federal government are overseeing spending.
Federal law requires school districts to submit spending plans to the state, and the Indiana Department of Education reviews those applications to ensure the plans comply with guidelines, according to IDOE spokesperson Holly Lawson. After school districts pay for purchases and services locally, they request reimbursement from the state.
Those plans contain details such as how much districts anticipate spending on replacing roofs or summer school. But the state has not publicly posted the applications it has received. Lawson said the department plans to launch a dashboard soon with some district-level information on the federal funding.
"We want to have this in the most user-friendly way possible so that someone can hop on and see the local spending from each [federal funding] round,” she said.
The education department is also supporting schools as they spend the money, Lawson said. For example, it offered districts the chance to join strategic planning groups led by experts. Out of more than 400 districts and charter schools in the state, 18 participated.
“IDOE provides guidance to schools, but the requirements are federally-set and the spending priorities and decisions are locally-driven,” Lawson said.
The federal government is also expected to collect information on how districts use the funding through an annual form, said Phillip Lovell, associate executive director of All4Ed, a national education advocacy group. But Lovell said communities should not have to wait for that data.
With the federal stimulus, education is getting a historic level of investment, Lovell said. The quality of public information on spending can either help build confidence in the system or erode that confidence.
“It's really critical for us — for the public — to know how these dollars are being spent,” Lovell said. “As soon as schools and districts have accurate reportable information, they should be sharing that with the public.”
‘A real lack of transparency’
The most recent federal stimulus bill required school districts to post plans for how they will spend the aid. The information that school systems have shared, however, varies widely.
Anderson Community Schools, a district of about 6,500 students, posted a list of ideas for how it might spend some of the aid. It includes broad categories such as “summer programming, and/or afterschool instruction,” and it doesn’t say how much the district would spend on any of the items. The summary mentions the $27 million Anderson received from the most recent round of funding. But it doesn’t reference the money the district received earlier — roughly $15 million, including some aid it shared with private schools.
In an email, Anderson spokesperson Bradley Meadows said the plan posted on the district website did not include earlier funding because that was used for emergency costs, such as technology and protective equipment. It did not include details on how much the district might spend on priorities because the district is “committed to taking our time to ensure this funding is used most effectively.”
Anderson is one of a handful of Indiana districts where a flood of new money — including the federal aid and a state funding increase that is supposed to help boost educator pay — spurred tense negotiations with the teachers union.
Meadows said the district provided updates on the spending at school board meetings, and it would offer another in the near future. The district also surveyed parents and community members and met with the teachers union, Meadows said.
“Since part of the bargaining negotiations involved staff stipends using [federal] funds, we felt it necessary for that process to conclude prior to providing additional information and updates to the public about our use of [federal] funding,” Meadows said.
But Marisa Little, a vice president of the teachers union, said the district should have done more to publicize the money it is receiving. Even many staff members were unaware that Anderson was slated to receive about $41 million in federal stimulus until the union began bargaining a new contract this fall, she said.
“There's been a real lack of transparency and a real lack of planning when spending the dollars,” Little said. “As soon as we knew we were getting it, everyone should have known. Our entire staff should have known — our entire community.”
It was an exceptional moment for Anderson because enrollment in the district is dwindling and in recent years, it has been too cash strapped to give significant raises, Little said.
“In my 20 years in Anderson Community Schools, it's more money than I recall us ever having at one time,” Little said. “We really felt like, it's now or never if we have any hope of getting a raise or getting an additional stipend."
Tracking over $90 million in stimulus funds
Although Anderson teachers have reached an agreement with the district, some school systems are still bargaining weeks after the state imposed deadline. In South Bend Community Schools, which educates about 16,000 students, the district and teachers union are working with a state mediator.
South Bend schools CFO Kareemah Fowler said the ongoing union negotiations are one reason for the district to be open about the federal funding it received. The administration needs to be clear that the infusion of close to $93 million (some of which it shared with private schools) is short-term. It would be unsustainable to use it to run schools, she said.
South Bend created an online tracker that shows how it plans to use most of the aid it received throughout the pandemic and how much of the money it has spent so far. At the start of the school year, the district also held a series of community meetings to tell people about how it had spent the money and learn what the public saw as needs, Fowler said.
“The funding is really a big shot in the arm for communities right now,” Fowler said. “I thought it was very important to kind of let the community know how we're spending that money and that we're taking the student learning loss — we are really taking that seriously.”
But publicity takes work. Even in South Bend, one of the largest school districts in the state, planning how to use the aid has been a challenge, and the district is hiring additional staff to oversee the federal money, Fowler said.
Engaging the community
Planning how to use the federal aid and publicizing that spending is an extra administrative burden for staff at a moment when districts are already overwhelmed. Schools are tackling those challenges at the same time they are attempting to operate during the pandemic and respond to unprecedented staffing shortages.
It takes even more commitment to go beyond publicizing information and get parents and community members to meaningfully engage in planning.
The grassroots organizing group Hoosier Action is familiar with this challenge — it led an effort to encourage residents to give input on how cities and counties use federal stimulus money, said Tracey Hutchings-Goetz, the communications director. Organizers found that many people were not used to thinking of public institutions as something they could influence.
"Time and time again, we would see a lack of imagination," she said. "We would spend a lot of time working with people to be like, 'No, you really, you can impact this. You get to decide.'"
The group uses tactics like text message campaigns and door-to-door canvassing to get people involved, she said.
"Robust public information is absolutely better than no or limited public information,” Hutchings-Goetz said. But, “it takes organized people to create change or impact policy.”
Reporter Lee V. Gaines contributed to this story.