Some Michigan schools keep mum on COVID relief spending

(The Center Square) – Theoretically, taxpayers should be able to see how Michigan schools are spending $5.7 billion of taxpayer money to recover from COVID-19-related learning loss.

But an investigation by The Center Square through more than 80 records requests to schools statewide shows how difficult it can be to obtain itemized COVID spending records. Many schools never responded to an initial Freedom of Information Act request.

Twenty schools provided records for free by fulfilling a records request or posting expenditures online. Four schools have charged for documents so far, while other schools have extended requests by 10 business days and are still compiling information.

Flint Community Schools received $156 million of COVID relief but hasn’t yet fulfilled a request for COVID spending records.

FCS responded to a records request filed on Aug. 11, 2022, saying, “We are currently unable to fulfill this request,” FOIA coordinator Rebecca Fisher wrote in an email. “The previous employee that held this position did not leave the requests for me to refer back to. We are working on trying to recover those requests.”

FCS is working on a new request as of Sept 19, 2022.

The Lansing School District received $107 million in COVID relief but has partially denied records requests, citing security concerns. It provided some records, but TCS is seeking complete spending records.

In an April 2022 memo, LSD says it will use the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III funding to maintain and add services to address student learning loss. That includes enacting “[d]aily rapid testing and a COVID Response Team of certified nurses to monitor all our schools,” the memo said. “The funds have allowed for Medical Assistants to help with contact tracing, testing, training, and response to positive COVID Tests. PPE, air purifiers, air purification systems to assist with sanitizing and mitigation.”

According to its website, the district serves more than 10,000 students across 25 buildings.

“Lansing School District was one of a few districts that remained virtual all year, and came back to face to face this fall and have been addressing the needs of students and staff alike since,” the memo said.

Monroe Public Schools denied a records request seeking roughly $12 million of COVID relief but provided a general plan for spending ESSER III funds. TCS has appealed the denial and filed other requests, which will likely take weeks to process and fulfill.

MPS said community stakeholders prioritized spending relief money on five areas: staff to tutor kids, services for students with disabilities, social/emotional support training, instructional materials, and facility improvements.

“Monroe Public Schools will use funds to address the academic impact of lost instructional time by using high quality assessments to determine academic needs, implementing evidence-based interventions and practices, supporting students and families, tracking student attendance & engagement, and monitoring student academic progress to identify students who need additional assistance,” the MPS general plan said. “Targeted supports will address the immediate needs of students most impacted by the pandemic.”

MPS says it will provide many out-of-school learning opportunities to recover from learning loss, including after-school tutoring, extended learning day programs, and expanded summer school programs.

Monroe Community College, in contrast, provides spending quarterly reports on its website of about $9.4 million it received in Higher Education Emergency Relief funds.

Kalamazoo Public Schools charged TCS $263 for spending records of $60 million of COVID relief. Three other schools charged under $50.

The COVID relief aimed to help kids recover from learning loss, so it’s unclear why these districts are fighting transparency.