Flush with COVID-19 aid, schools steer funding to sports

Iowa City, Oct. 7 (US): A Wisconsin school has built a new soccer field. In Iowa, a high school weight room is being renovated. Another in Kentucky is replacing two outdoor tracks — all funded by the billions of dollars the federal pandemic relief Congress sent to schools this year.

This money is part of a $123 billion injection aimed at helping schools reopen and recover from the pandemic. But with few restrictions on how the funding is spent, the Associated Press found that some regions have used large portions to cover athletics projects they previously could not afford.

Critics say it violates the intent of the legislation, which was intended to help students keep up with learning after months of distance learning. But many schools argue that the projects support students’ physical and mental health, which is one of the goals the federal government allows, the AP reports.

Representative Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the US House of Representatives Education Committee, said the money should not be used to fund athletics at the expense of academics. He said it was intended to help students, not sports programs.

“I suspect you can make an argument for anything,” Scott said, “but the purpose is clear: to open safely, to stay open safely, to deal with learning loss.” “These are essential targeted resources to address the fact that a lot of kids haven’t achieved much for about a year.”

Every dollar spent from pandemic relief on sports can be used to expand tutoring, reduce class sizes and take other steps to help students who are struggling academically, said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

“Can these regions show that all of their children are ready to graduate at the end of this year – university – and ready to work?” She said. “If not, stop building. Stop this now.”

In some parts of the country, exercise equipment companies have tried to take advantage of this, contacting coaches and supervisors at schools to suggest upgrades.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many schools are using pandemic relief for athletics. Districts are required to tell states how to spend the money, but some schools use local funding for sports projects and then replace it with federal relief — a maneuver that bypasses reporting requirements.

The funding is part of the US bailout signed by President Joe Biden last March, which has sent money to schools, giving a bigger share to those in higher poverty. It’s the latest of several rounds of congressional funding to states to meet education needs. The Associated Press has tracked more than $157 billion that has so far been distributed to school districts nationwide.

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Schools have great flexibility in how they use the money but only three years to spend it, a deadline that has prompted some to seek quick purchases that won’t need ongoing funding after the federal funds run out.

When school officials in Whitewater, Wisconsin, learned they would 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 synthetic turf pitches for soccer, baseball and softball.

Athletics officials in the district, home to 1,800 students, said the project was badly needed to replace fields prone to heavy flooding. They described the federal funds as an opportunity to solve the problem without requiring local taxpayers to fund.

“If we don’t do it now with that money, I’m not sure when we’ll do something like that,” athletic director Justin Crandall told the school board in May. “I don’t see that we are an area that will be subject to a referendum on the grass fields.”

Two school board members objected, and one of them raised concerns that only $400,000 would be used to address student learning loss — the threshold to meet a requirement that at least 20% go toward that purpose.

The council approved the plan despite those objections, and the new football stadium was to open in September. District Manager Caroline Pat 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 in a high school weight room renovation. This allowed the district to double its weightlifting platforms to 12 and add new branded floors dedicated to the school.

Supervisor Matt Patton called it a “significant improvement in health and safety,” saying the new floors could be disinfected more easily. He said most of the district’s federal aid went to other costs, including a full-time mental health therapist, special education teachers and expanded summer learning options.

Like many in rural Iowa, the district of about 1,000 students has attempted to return to the normal process: It has returned to full personal learning, and just weeks before agreeing to a weight-room overhaul, it has dropped the mask mandate.

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The project is seen as a boon to the wrestlers and soccer team, which recently boasted that 39 players took part in more than 3,300 off-season workouts. Old equipment will be used in middle school.

“More kids will be able to lift at the same time with better equipment,” said high school wrestling coach Leland Schwartz. “Anytime we can offer our athletes more opportunities, these athletes will improve, making all of our programs better.”

The school board in East Lyme, Connecticut, recently approved a plan to put some of its federal subsidies into annual operating costs, freeing up $175,000 to renovate a baseball field with poor drainage. Some board members have called for swift action to finish work in time for the Games in the spring.

In September, the Pulaski County School Board in Kentucky committed $1 million to help epidemics re-emerge in two outdoor tracks. Supervisor Patrick Richardson described it as a health and wellness project that fell within the scope of federal funding, saying that it would “allow our students to go out for mask breaks, class dependent, in a safe environment.”

Among education advocates, athletics spending is seen as a breakdown at all levels of government.

Tera Wallen, associate director of the Education Fund, said federal officials failed to provide clear funding guidelines, while state education departments did not monitor their school spending. She also wondered if districts spending on athletics considered what was best for students.

Wallen said the US Department of Education should issue new guidance and intervene before more districts make similar decisions.

“There will be regions next spring that will be looking at things like this,” she said. “There is still plenty of time to influence them and make sure the counties are doing the right thing.”

The Department of Education said in a statement that it had made clear that the funding should be used to cover “reasonable and necessary” expenses for the pandemic response. She said there was “ample evidence” that districts are using relief to keep schools safe, including by increasing access to vaccines, implementing virus testing and improving ventilation systems.

“We continue to strongly encourage each district to use these funds to help address these issues, including using the back-to-school roadmap and providing guidance on how to use these funds,” the department said.

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So far, sports spending has generated little opposition from the states, which are responsible for making sure the districts spend the money appropriately. In August, Illinois education officials rejected a school plan to use the money on a football field. But other states say it is not their place to challenge spending decisions on schools.

The Iowa Department of Education approved the Roland-Story weight room project, saying that federal guidelines allow for “capital expenditures for special purpose equipment.”

The funding priorities are local decisions, said Heather Doe, a spokeswoman for the agency. She said the department did not have the authority to refuse district spending, unless it was “certainly not permitted.”

In Congress, lawmakers of both parties say it’s wrong to use money in sports. Democrats say that’s not what was intended, while Republicans say it’s a sign it isn’t needed.

“Congress has allocated billions of dollars more than the CDC estimated is necessary to safely reopen schools, setting the stage for rampant waste and abuse,” said Representative Virginia Fox of North Carolina, the Republican member of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Meanwhile, fitness companies are ramping up sales offerings.

Chad May, CEO of Commercial Fitness Equipment in Eugene, Oregon, said he averages five new school projects each week. So far, he said, his company has secured $25 million in weight room upgrades funded with epidemiological assistance.

More often than not, calls come from underfunded areas that want the kind of facilities their wealthier peers have, May said. But some are just looking for ways to spend their federal benefits within the three-year deadline.

The high school weight room repair in Story City, Iowa, is being done by Push Pedal Pull, a South Dakota company that does similar projects elsewhere in Iowa and Nebraska.

Luke Ryland, a company representative in Ames, Iowa, said he’s contacted schools to let them know the funding can be used for these types of costs. He sees weight rooms and fitness centers becoming increasingly important to schools in small towns as they look to prevent students from leaving for larger areas.

“I am right in the fight… to allocate this money,” Ryland said. “I think a lot of these little schools are trying to use that money to upgrade a bunch of things, and I’m just trying to get my piece of the pie.”

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