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Lawmakers ask Evers to open the books on federal COVID funds

Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 24,  2022
 
By M.D. Kittle 
 
MADISON — What are Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction doing to make sure the billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief to the state’s school districts is being spent properly? What is Evers — who has an abysmal record on open government — doing to make sure the public has access to information on the expenditures? 
 
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Allouez) and state Reps. Joel Kitchens (Sturgeon Bay) and Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) are asking those questions in a letter to the governor. 
 
And Gallagher has introduced the Spending Every Nickel on Education (SENSE) Act ,  a House bill requiring school districts to annually submit to their states a report on expenditures they’ve received through the ESSER federal aid funds. The reports must track whether the expenditures comply with the spending plan the district submitted before receiving the funds. State education agencies — DPI in Wisconsin — would then have to make the reports publicly available. 
 
Under current law, school districts must publish reports for how they plan to spend the American Rescue Plan Act funding, but there is no requirement for school districts to publish information for how that money is actually spent.
 
“Now that ESSER III money is being distributed to districts it is important that you establish systems and processes to provide transparency to the public,” the lawmakers write in the letter to Evers. “(W)e ask that you establish a way for districts to easily indicate how they spent their money so Wisconsin’s parents and school leaders can be engaged and participate in the process.”
 
The legislators note Congress has provided billions of dollars to Wisconsin to help students continue learning over the past two years despite the disruptions of the pandemic. Last year, the federal government allocated more than $1.5 billion through a third round of ESSER money.
 
“Unfortunately, late last year we saw some major Wisconsin school districts close until mid-January which will undoubtedly contribute to more learning loss for Wisconsin’s students,” the lawmakers’ letter states. 
 
Milwaukee Public Schools was one of the districts to close to in-person learning this year after going virtual for much of the 2020-21 school year. MPS, the largest school district in the state, by far received the largest share of ESSER funds, nearly $800 million total. That’s more than a third of the $2.2 billion in federal COVID relief allocated to Wisconsin’s schools, and equates to about $11,000 per MPS student. Madison Metropolitan School District, which also shut down in-person learning last month, received $42.5 million. 
 
The aid was supposed to be used to help keep schools open to in-person learning. As Gallagher and the state lawmakers note, “Even the Biden Administration has signaled the importance of in-person learning with their test-to-stay policy.” 
 
“Nearly two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that shutting down schools was a grave error,” the letter to Evers states. “Given the unprecedented federal financial support of the ESSER III Fund and experience of the past two years, we ask that you provide answers to the following questions:
  1. What plans do you have to ensure district expenditures are made public?

 

  1. How quickly after the end of the school year could the Department of Public Instruction make this information available to the public?

 

  1. What procedures do you have in place to ensure funds are being used to continue in-person instruction and make up for lost learning as intended?
 
“Parents should be able to see how districts are using their taxpayer dollars to keep their children in school. This is vital to make up for lost learning and hold districts accountable if they are not,” the letter states. 
 
The Evers administration has been slow to detail how it has spent the nearly $5 billion in the federal COVID aid the governor controls. Republicans have criticized the governor for using the unprecedented funds as a re-election campaign slush fund. The Legislative Audit Bureau is conducting an audit into Evers’ handling of the federal aid. 

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