A new report shows Wisconsin schools are marking a significant amount of federal COVID relief for school and classroom construction projects, outpacing planned pandemic aid for core educational and mental health programs.

The Institute for Reforming Government’s updated K-12 COVID relief audit found some $265 million of the current $1.49 billion in taxpayer funds allocated is going to construction. That’s $61 million more than the next biggest category, hiring and paying teachers, at 22 percent of current allocations — with mental health programs picking up a fragment of the funds.

Milwaukee Public Schools, according to IRG, has directed 46 percent of its COVID funding to be spent on construction — $42 million more than its original board approved plan. At the same time, only 11 percent of Milwaukee’s fourth-graders were proficient in math, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the Nation’s Report Card.”

So much for prioritizing the academic and emotional needs of Wisconsin’s children hit hard by the pandemic and the destructive lockdowns pushed by Gov. Tony Evers and his teachers union allies.

In December, the U.S. Department of Education “strongly discouraged” the nation’s schools from spending the approximately $184 billion in pandemic aid on construction projects. But that’s what a lot of schools have done, expanding buildings, remodeling classrooms, even constructing athletic facilities.

A recent report by Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab estimated that a quarter of the total COVID aid designated for schools since 2020 has been used for facilities and construction.

That tracks with IRG’s latest report.

In January, the Wisconsin think tank rolled out its audit on how the state’s 450 school districts are spending unprecedented federal aid promoted to help schools do whatever is necessary to catch kids up by September 2024. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the state’s public schools have failed to provide a clear picture of how many of the funds have been allocated.

IRG’s interactive database showed a majority of districts around the state were slow to act.

“The coronavirus pandemic was a 2-year catastrophe for children,” Quinton Klabon, senior research director for the Institute for Reforming Government, wrote at the time. “Students suffered through virtual schooling, quarantined teachers, and emotional misery. Academic results, the lowest this century, still have not recovered.”

The good news, according to Klabon, is that approved district plans for spending have jumped from $508 million to $938 million (63 percent) of the total $1.49 billion in federal money since IRG’s first report.

“Wisconsin schools are now on track to allocate all funds by July 2023 in order to exhaust all funds by the September 2024 deadline,” the updated report states.

But the bad news is manifold, according to the institute. And it begins and ends with transparency failures.

IRG asserts the Department of Public Instruction has not provided adequate oversight for the funds. As a result:

  • Construction is now the largest allocation category at 28 percent. This represents $265 million, little of which directly improves learning. Despite the Biden administration’s “strong discouragement,” it is $61 million more than the next biggest category, teachers, at 22 percent of current allocations.
  • Mental health is still not prioritized, despite children’s ongoing crisis. Mental health allocations rose from 6 percent to 7 percent, but it amounts to just one-fourth of the building renovation total.
  • Unlabeled mystery money and over-budgeting increased. DPI approved $36 million, or 4 percent of all allocations, in unidentified items. 14 districts went $1 million over budget total, despite DPI approval.
  • The neediest districts remain too sluggish in allocation. 14 of the 20 highest-funded districts are not on pace, 7 of the 10 lowest-performing districts in reading are not, and 19 districts have allocated $0.
  • Wisconsin schools face a fiscal cliff. $342 million is allocated to permanent personnel.
  • Milwaukee is a mess. Following IRG’s January audit, DPI emailed every Superintendent in Wisconsin a 2-page response to IRG. While it did not correct any facts, it did shift leadership on allocations to districts. MPS, in contrast, blamed DPI for taking 10 months to approve its budget and admitted to spending without DPI oversight out of desperation. Now approved by DPI, Milwaukee’s budget is 46 percent construction – $42 million more than its original board-approved plan – and has $27 million in unlabeled allocations. Those millions, which do not improve students’ academics or mental health, are larger than what 445 out of 450 districts got entirely.

“IRG strongly urges DPI to correct errors and provide more student-focused guidance,” the institute wrote in its report.

Academic and mental health damage from COVID and the closing of schools runs deep. Nationally, math and reading scores for fourth and eighth grade students have plummeted to a nearly 20-year low. So, why are school districts prioritizing building projects over intensive reading and math programs?

As the Associated Press reported, Wisconsin’s Whitewater School District learned it would be getting $2 million in pandemic relief, so officials decided to set most of it aside to cover costs from their current budget. That freed up $1.6 million in local funding that’s being used to build new synthetic turf fields for football, baseball and softball.

In the Roland-Story Community School District in Iowa, the school board voted in May 2021 to use $100,000 in pandemic relief on a high school weight room renovation.

“It’s impossible to know exactly how many schools are using the federal money on athletics. Districts are required to tell states how they’re spending the money, but some are using local funding for sports projects and then replacing it with the federal relief — a maneuver that skirts reporting requirements,” the AP reported.

Meanwhile, learning loss post COVID has been steep.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, told NBC News that while some facility projects are necessary, especially in districts that have been “shortchanged historically,” getting learning back on track for students should be schools’ priority.

“Some of [these projects] won’t be finished until that kid’s graduated and gone — so this money, which was for these kids, won’t actually benefit them,” Roza said.

“While this money may flow to the state government from the federal government, it’s the kids’ money,” IRG’s Klabon said. “If we’re not allocating and spending it on these kids, we’ve failed this generation.

– – –

M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Construction Worker” by Josh Olalde.