Report questions Tennessee public school’s spending of $3.5B in COVID-19 relief funds

(The Center Square) – A new report from Beacon Center of Tennessee shows that school districts throughout Tennessee received a total of nearly $3.5 billion sent directly to districts in COVID-19 recovery funding.

That funding, however, was then used by districts for items such as mattress pads, instant pots, toaster ovens, Apple pens, security cameras, sound systems, and sending teachers to a conference in Baltimore. The funds were part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, which has had three phases of funding.

The Nashville-based think tank sent public records requests for detailed spending from 12 school districts and found that spending of the funds included $25 million for a new building in Hamilton County schools, $3 million to design a new elementary school in Metro Nashville, $24,000 for Legos in Greene County Schools, $100,000 for retracted bleachers in McNairy County and $766,000 to upgrade to doors and windows with tinted glass in Lauderdale County.

The Beacon Center reviewed more than 2,000 documents that it took months to receive from the 12 districts in order to compile the itemized list.

“Though new schools and renovations can be legitimate purchases for a school district to make, we question why these items were bought with relief funds that should have gone to remedying learning loss at a time when Tennessee public school students are struggling academically, with only 36 percent reading on grade level,” the report asked. “Are tinted windows, retractable bleachers, and walk-in coolers really going to help students academically when so many are struggling to understand basic reading and arithmetic?”

Other highlighted expenditures included $16,000 for eight virtual reality goggles in Weakley County, $160,000 to resurface a playground in Pickett County, $780,000 for playground equipment in Maury County and $45,000 for a new walk-in cooler in Hawkins County.

“The public and lawmakers should know how these tax dollars are spent,” the report said. “During a time when many people were out of work due to government closures, public schools were receiving billions of dollars, handing out bonuses and purchasing items from retractable bleachers to virtual reality goggles. Teachers who feel their work went unappreciated while department heads were getting stipends or installing new sound systems should want answers from their districts.”

The report showed that, while most of the funding from the first phase of relief has been spent, most of the third phase of relief remains unspent. The first phase sent $234 million to districts, the second sent $997 million and the third is set to send $2.2 billion to Tennessee schools. In all, just less than $1.08 billion of the $3.47 billion of overall funding has been spent, or 31.3%.

“Multiple federal relief bills were passed because legislators believed schools needed these funds immediately to combat the pandemic and learning loss,” the report said. “Yet the urgency seen in handing out these billions of dollars has not transferred to those in charge of spending the funds.”