PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When school came back fully in person at Roger Williams Middle School in 2021, special education teacher Cindy Robles says one of the classrooms needed a place to pull students aside to get caught up on their reading skills.
The teachers held an online fundraiser to put together the roughly $400 to buy a kidney-shaped table which now sits in the corner of the classroom. At this table, a teacher can meet with small groups of students for reading interventions, separate from the rest of the class.
“We realized that our students are significantly below, so we needed to act fast,” Robles, the department chair, said in an interview with Target 12 in the classroom. “It could take up to a year if I had requested that table.”
The teachers felt the need to raise the money even though the Providence Public School District still has millions of dollars waiting to be spent from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, emergency money specifically earmarked to address pandemic-related learning loss, including through solutions like reading interventions.
“There needs to be a sense of urgency with getting students what they need,” Robles said. “Sitting on all this money, we’re not putting our kids first.”
President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law in March 2021, urging education leaders to spend the billions sent directly to school districts on accelerating instruction to make up for lost learning during the pandemic.
Providence, the largest district in Rhode Island, received $128 million. It comes as the district — under state control since 2019 due to poor academic outcomes — has been trying to undertake a massive turnaround effort.
Yet so far, the school department has spent little of the ARPA money. As of Dec. 31, the district reports spending $8.2 million, according to spokesperson Nick Domings — or just 6% of the latest tranche of emergency relief.
As Target 12 first reported last summer, the vast majority of the ARPA money spent in Providence thus far — $6 million — went toward $3,000 bonuses for teachers that were negotiated by Gov. Dan McKee’s administration and the teachers union in 2021. That amounted to 5% of the ARPA money for Providence schools.
Other than that, roughly $2 million has been spent. The largest chunk of that was spent on signing bonuses for new teachers and substitutes, followed by professional development, after school and summer programs, a CCRI program, instructional materials and interventions, credit recovery, equipment and furniture and some miscellaneous fees.
That leaves an additional $120 million still waiting to be spent.
Domings said the district has been focused on spending down previous pots of federal COVID relief received in 2020, totaling $110 million.
“We’ve done a very good job of allocating that money and spending it by the deadline that it’s had to be spent,” Domings told Target 12. (He spoke on behalf of Superintendent Javier Montañez, who was not available to be interviewed.)
That 2020 relief went towards items to get through the acute phase of the pandemic, like masks, PPE, Chromebooks, substitute teachers and more. Domings said $10 million still remains from “ESSER II,” the acronym for the second round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund approved by Congress back in 2020.
The ARPA money for schools is known as ESSER III, since it’s the third round of emergency school aid since the start of the pandemic. The district has said it will be spent on closing the achievement gap, accelerating learning and providing social-emotional supports.
Robles is wondering what’s taking so long.
“We need these resources now,” she said. “We need these staff members now. We need these interventions now.”
She said teachers are still spending their own money on school supplies. In one classroom, she showed Target 12 a stack of novels purchased by an English language arts teacher, not the district, so she could teach the book to her class.
Domings acknowledged the spending so far has been “lower than expected,” but said the district will still make Congress’s deadline for obligating the money by September of next year.
“We have several school years ahead of us to use this,” Domings said.
“Why are waiting until September of 2024?” asked Robles, who was recently elected the vice president of the Providence Teachers Union.
The speed with which the federal COVID relief is being spent statewide has long been a concern of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, whose president and CEO Michael DiBiase says the money could be spent on extra class time and intensive tutoring.
“We’ve been ringing the bell on this from the beginning,” DiBiase told Target 12. “There should be much greater urgency to deploy these funds to address learning loss.”
Some of the large school districts have made more progress than Providence in spending their pots of ARPA money. (Providence received far more money than any other district, and also has the most students at more than 20,000.)
Cranston, the second-largest district in the state, has spent 36% of its ARPA money as of Dec. 31, according to its most recent report to the R.I. Department of Education. Pawtucket, an urban district with similar challenges to Providence, has spent nearly 16%.
The Warwick public school district has not reported its ARPA spending since last June, but the district reported spending more than 60% of the money already last summer. (More updated spending data from Warwick was not immediately available.)
DiBiase said he has trouble accepting districts’ rationale that the spending deadline isn’t until 2024.
“These students have learning loss right now,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we front-end that spending?”
He also noted that districts can spend some of the money to help administer the funds.
Asked if Providence received more money from Congress than it can handle, Domings said it did not.
“For how long the students and families of this district have been underserved, I would say no amount of money is enough,” he said. “We will happily use every single dollar that’s given to us to help out our students.”
Providence’s spending plan remains in flux
Getting hold of Providence school leaders’ plan for spending their huge pot of COVID cash proved more difficult than expected.
Target 12 asked for an updated spending plan for the remaining $120 million on Jan. 12, and Domings provided a response on Jan. 30. The plan he shared was the same one the district had provided last summer.
But Target 12 soon discovered that a separate, conflicting spending plan had been shared with the Senate Finance Committee on Jan. 17. It had been requested by Providence Sen. Sam Zurier and Sen. Ryan Pearson, the former Finance chair who is now majority leader.
The two plans have similar themes, but many line items and dollar amounts are different. The plan provided to Target 12 budgets more than $10 million for summer and CTE programming, while the plan given to the Senate says it will cost $3 million.
Zurier pointed out that the plan provided to Target 12 allocated a total of $52 million for various social-emotional learning and behavioral interventions, while the plan the Senate received called for $13 million for those items.
“Did things change from the summer to Jan. 17, and did they change again from Jan. 17 to Jan. 30?” Zurier asked. “It’s somewhat puzzling.”
Asked repeatedly for an explanation about the conflicting plans, PPSD did not respond for a week.
Domings eventually said the plan provided to Target 12 was correct, but also said the plan provided to the Senate was an “update on spending to date and projected spending for future years, using the same priorities and strategies from our original plan.”
Domings also acknowledged the plan given to the Senate is already outdated. The documents say $44 million in ARPA money is slated to be spent this school year, a projection the district no longer expects to reach, considering they’ve only spent $2 million this school year so far.
Domings went on to say a new plan for Providence’s ARPA money is expected to be completed by the end of February, changing the priorities “based on recent accountability results as well as spending to date.”
Zurier argues the confusion is a symptom of a lack of transparency during the state takeover.
One of the promises of the takeover was that layers of “red tape” and bureaucracy would be removed, potentially speeding up the process of getting things done.
But it also means taxpayer spending is no longer publicly vetted the way it is in every other school district in the state. The plan to spend the ARPA money has never been approved by the Providence School Board or City Council.
“What they did in the state takeover was they removed all outside oversight entirely,” Zurier said. “At this point, they’re not accountable to anybody.”
He argues the lack of oversight has led to several mistakes, including the recent surprise announcement that two elementary schools will close this spring.
“There was no interaction with the affected community until after the decision was made, which was a big problem,” Zurier said.
While it’s unclear what exactly will be in PPSD’s latest ARPA spending plan later this month, one of the proposals is to extend the length of the school day so students are in class more. That item would need to be negotiated with the teachers union, whose current contract expires later this year.
Domings said the plan will include hiring reading specialists, tutoring, summer programming and other initiatives to help Providence students catch up to their peers.
It’s unclear how much more of the money will be spent on signing bonuses amid the ongoing teacher shortage, but the district has so far used ARPA money to give 186 newly hired teachers and substitutes a bonus as a hiring incentive.
There are currently 189 vacant teacher jobs, 131 of which are classroom positions. The vacancies are higher now than they were at the start of the school year.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.