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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Dec. 6, 2023

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Federal audit finds flaws in WA’s oversight of pandemic aid for schools


U.S. Department of Education officials found flaws in Washington state’s oversight of more than $1 billion in federal dollars intended to help public schools weather the pandemic.

In an audit released last week, investigators found the public didn’t have sufficient insight into how school districts planned to spend the money, 20% of which was earmarked to help students who’d fallen behind academically during the pandemic.

Auditors also found weaknesses in how expenditures of the aid were reviewed for compliance.

State officials corrected course in response to the audit’s recommendations, which were based on more than a year’s worth of inquiries. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the state agency responsible for making sure school districts comply with federal regulations, said it will randomly sample expenditures of the aid to ensure compliance and required all school districts to publicly post their plans for spending the relief aid online.

Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent and leader of OSPI, said he was pleased with the outcome of the audit given how much aid was in question. Auditors sampled 26 expenditures from two different districts, including Seattle Public Schools. They were able to confirm all but one expenditure followed the proper policies and regulations.

“It helped us,” he said.

But one school expert on school finance called it “a troubling report” about the agency’s ability to do one of its essential functions: ensuring school districts comply with federal law.

“Students are still behind. If there were more opportunities to weigh in, and transparency around what districts are doing, the funds may have been used in a way that’s more effective for students,” said Katie Silberstein, strategic projects lead for the Edunomics Lab, a Georgetown University department that researches education finance.

Washington is one of just three states audited for their use of the funds. Audits are forthcoming on Illinois and Kentucky.

OSPI faced questions about the visibility of the aid long before the audit. Under federal rules for using the aid, released in 2021, states had to ensure school districts had publicly shared detailed spending plans for their funds. Education finance experts noticed Washington school districts shared very little compared to other states two summers ago.

Reykdal said that at the time, his team believed the state was in compliance with the requirement to publicly post plans.

A few days before the federal government released its regulations for using the funds, OSPI released its own guidance, based on a state law, requiring districts to share what academic strategies they’d use with their federal aid. OSPI compiled these plans — called the Academic and Student Well-being Recovery Plans — and posted them publicly.

Auditors concluded these plans were not sufficient. In January 2023, more than two years after other states did so, OSPI sent out a mass email during the audit requiring districts to post more detailed accounting of how they’d spend the aid package. This accounting was technically in the public domain before, but buried in each district’s School Board documents.

But this new requirement doesn’t yield much more new information. The plan Seattle Public Schools shared for how it would use the 20% earmarked for learning recovery is fewer than 50 words.

Given that schools have less than a year left to spend the aid, this lag is significant, said Silberstein.

State officials have also complained about the opacity of federal spending. The auditing wing of the Washington Legislature found earlier this year that the agency failed to collect sufficient data about interventions meant to help kids recover from learning loss and has not monitored whether the investments are helping students improve academically.

The Department of Education report also found several instances of school districts that hadn’t submitted proper plans for spending the aid. Two of these school districts were given funds totaling $54,000 despite missing a component of their plans. OSPI said all school districts receiving aid have since completed their paperwork.

In their review of school districts’ spending, auditors questioned whether Seattle Public Schools followed policy when it spent $890,315 on a transportation contract using federal funds. They could not determine whether the vendor selected represented the best value to the district. Information they reviewed showed that the vendor received among the lowest scores of other bidders.

As a result of the audit, Reykdal said, school districts will be required to post their budgets online in an easily discoverable way on their websites. And new, more detailed information about how school districts have spent the aid is due to arrive sometime this fall.

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