Report Exposes Misspent COVID Relief Funds in Tennessee Schools | Citizens Against Government Waste

Report Exposes Misspent COVID Relief Funds in Tennessee Schools

The WasteWatcher

The myriad ways that school districts across the country have misspent COVID-19 relief funds is well-documented.  From athletics facilities to bird sanctuaries, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on projects that have nothing to do with student learning loss and other academic challenges that arose from the pandemic.  An August 22, 2022, Beacon Center of Tennessee report spotlights how the Volunteer State’s school districts have spent millions of dollars in relief funds on such unrelated projects.

According to the report, Tennessee received $4.5 billion in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to help public schools weather and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Beacon Center received material from public information requests issued to 12 school districts about the use of their share of these funds. 

Several districts used ESSER funds for the construction of future buildings under the guise of protecting “student health,” including against the COVID-19 virus.  For instance, Cumberland County allocated $9,553,973 in federal money from the ESSER fund for the construction of a high school auditorium that will allow students to “mitigate the spread of Covid-19.”  In Hamilton County, $25 million was set aside for the “Construction of a new building … that allows for appropriate social distancing.”  The report did not detail how long the district expects social distancing among students to be necessary.

In Shelby County, administrators justified giving schools a $1,485,582 facelift, “To make our district buildings in Weakley County cleaner and more efficient to prevent, protect, and limit the risk of COVID-19 to our staff, students, and guests.”  Changes included the renovation of front office flooring and new paint on walls, doors, and trim at one elementary school.  Likewise, Westview High replaced the flooring in its office and upgraded the sound systems in the theater and gym.  Taxpayers can rest assured that students, faculty, and guest at these schools will be protected by the new paint, flooring, and sound systems that are surely COVID-19 resistant.

Other projects paid for with “relief” funds don’t even attempt to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a justification.  In McNairy County, $233,492 was set aside for the construction of playground equipment at five schools, including “swings, slides, climbing equipment,” and a “Timber board containment system.”  McNairy County also allocated ESSER money for “STEAM equipment such as VEX robotics kits” in addition to “Legos, 3D printers,” and other technology.  Although the official description cites “learning acceleration” as the justification for the purchase,” it does nothing to explain how teaching kids to build and play with robots will help their declining scores in basic subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The rampant misuse of ESSR and other sources of taxpayer money by school districts showcases the need for stringent reporting requirements.  Thankfully, one state is providing taxpayers with a comprehensive look at school spending.  On November 5, 2021, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) signed SB 373 into law.  All school districts in the state must “make detailed information related to the receipt and expenditure data” publicly available on the district’s website. 

Taxpayers should not have to rely on organizations like the Beacon Center to spend the time and money necessary to gain access to how schools have spent their money.  Instead, states across the country should adopt Wisconsin’s model and provide much-needed transparency into whether school districts are spending money efficiently or if it is being wasted.  Such transparency will bring abuses to light and hopefully prevent future instances of fiscal mishandling of taxpayer dollars.  

The Beacon Center’s findings barely scratch the surface of the waste, fraud, and abuse present in ESSER funding throughout the nation’s approximately 13,800 school districts.  The amount of misspent funds identified in just five counties in the 16th largest state does not inspire faith that the tens of billions of dollars provided in federal education funds for COVID-19 “relief” were used properly elsewhere in the nation.

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