PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ten of Rhode Island’s largest public school districts received roughly $130 million in the most recent round of federal COVID relief funding, but Target 12 has learned those districts have spent less than 7% of that money so far.
Target 12 began surveying the 10 school districts in June to find out what they’ve done with their portions of the roughly $374 million in federal funding local districts received from the American Rescue Plan Act. The March 2021 law requires districts to spend about 20% of their money on helping students who fell behind during the pandemic.
“But otherwise there’s not a lot of strings attached to this money,” said Michael DiBiase, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a business-backed think tank. “It’s a mistake that we’ve left it to every district — we have 30-something districts — to figure this out.”
In all, Rhode Island K-12 districts received nearly $400 million in ARPA money, and when that amount is added to the two previous rounds of federal funding, the total of over $500 million amounts to the largest infusion of federal dollars ever into Rhode Island schools.
The U.S. Department of Education distributed ARPA funding to states between March and December 2021, and school districts across the state were required to submit plans for spending their millions to the R.I. Department of Education in March 2022.
District plans for the money are publicly available on RIDE’s website if you know where to look, but Target 12 has learned that as of Tuesday, there is still nowhere for the public to see how much these districts have spent so far.
To find out, you have to ask each district individually.
It took weeks for Target 12 to get responses from the 10 largest districts, and several failed to answer specific questions, including how much they’ve spent so far.
The districts that Target 12 surveyed received approximately $130 million in federal funds, but so far, they say they’ve only spent $8.5 million combined, or about 6.5% of the total.
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Erica Wall said her daughter is excited to start second grade at Waddington Elementary School in East Providence in a few weeks, and she said her family has had a positive experience in the district. But Wall said she was unaware her district had received nearly $12 million in federal ARPA funds.
“Parents 110% should be made aware of where this money is going,” Wall said. “If they have really good intentions, then there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t be made aware of what’s going on.”
Sharon Corsi, executive assistant to the East Providence superintendent, told Target 12 the district has spent about $753,000 so far on things like before- and after-school programs, education software and math consultants.
Jeannine Nota-Masse, superintendent of Cranston Public Schools, said she’s never seen educators leave the profession the way they have during the pandemic. The result, she said, is a district still struggling to hire certain positions.
“We’re really struggling with math — math, science, technology,” Nota-Masse said. “Getting folks, especially specialists for math who have certification and experience to teach in a very specific area, has become a huge problem in Rhode Island.”
Cranston received more than $20 million in ARPA schools funding, and Nota-Masse said the district has spent $700,000 so far on things like infrastructure, professional development and technology.
She said the district would have used more federal dollars on teaching specialists, but they can’t find them.
Nota-Masse said she tried to find a math specialist for each of the district’s 14 elementary schools to help kids who have fallen behind, but after months of searching, Cranston has only hired two.
And some district challenges like absenteeism can’t be fixed with extra funding.
Nota-Masse said absenteeism was her biggest concern before the pandemic, and it continues to be heading into the new school year. To confront it, she said she repurposed certain staff who reach out to families of kids who haven’t come back to school.
But while Cranston was transparent in sharing its ARPA spending and challenges in the year ahead, some of the 10 school districts Target 12 reached out to were not. The map below shows all 10 districts surveyed.
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Districts like Pawtucket and Johnston did not respond to multiple attempts by Target 12 to find out how much of their combined $38 million they’ve spent so far.
“I think there needs to be a lot more transparency,” DiBiase said.
Philip Thornton, superintendent of Cumberland schools, told Target 12 his district spent all of the roughly $5 million in ARPA money it received, with the majority of it being used on additional teachers and staff to help students who fell behind.
“That should be the highest priority — right? — is actually directing this money toward teaching and learning to bring students up to where they should be,” DiBiase said.