Chicago Public Schools is flush with federal COVID-19 relief cash but is spending little of it

A WBEZ analysis shows that 69% of the $536 million in federal COVID relief money CPS budgeted this year is unspent.

WBEZ
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he had hoped this would be a “recovery year ... It has not played out that way. It has really been a reopening year. How do we keep the schools open? That has been our challenge.” Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he had hoped this would be a “recovery year ... It has not played out that way. It has really been a reopening year. How do we keep the schools open? That has been our challenge.” Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools is flush with federal COVID-19 relief cash but is spending little of it

A WBEZ analysis shows that 69% of the $536 million in federal COVID relief money CPS budgeted this year is unspent.

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As they prepared to welcome students back to in-person learning last summer, Chicago Public Schools officials laid out how they planned to use federal COVID-19 relief money to help students heal from the emotional and academic turmoil caused by the pandemic.

After all, the school district was flush with cash. It received $1.8 billion through the American Rescue Plan to spend by September 2024.

But now, as the end of the school year is in sight, much of that money hasn’t been spent, and few of those programs have come to fruition.

About 69% of the $536 million budgeted this year — some $370 million — is unspent. It’s either simply uncommitted or committed to positions or goods or services that have yet to be filled or purchased, according to a WBEZ analysis of CPS American Rescue Plan spending as of last month.

CPS has put some of the money to use, but at a smaller scale than anticipated. The district promised to send 850 tutors to schools to offer the kind of high-impact tutoring shown to help students catch up. But officials revised that goal to 650 and so far have only hired 460.

And some of the federal money was allocated to schools, giving principals a rare chance to offer a plethora of after-school programs and offer social emotional supports for students. But principals so far have only been able to spend about half of what they were allotted. CPS told WBEZ that whatever remains unspent by schools in June will be swept back into the central budget to be reallocated.

At the Chicago Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, CPS officials acknowledged just how little has been used. They said only 12% has actually been paid out, though some of the remaining money is obligated for salaries for filled positions.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez blamed it at least partly on the ongoing pandemic, which caused central office staff and principals to focus all year on COVID protocols, testing and quarantines, rather than on hiring or partnering to implement these plans.

“We all wanted this to be a recovery year,” Martinez said of himself and other school district leaders who are facing the same challenges. “It has not played out that way. It has really been a reopening year. How do we keep the schools open? That has been our challenge.”

Staff shortages have also proven to be a major impediment in CPS and across the country. In Chicago, this issue was exacerbated because the school district’s spending plan was not being completed until the summer, delaying hiring and partnering with outside organizations until the fall. The school district’s procurement and hiring processes can take time, said Gabriela Arismendi, who was hired in January to manage the spending of the American Rescue Plan funds.

She also said the “great resignation,” including top level district staff that have stepped down, has hindered spending.

Arismendi said the state has spent even less of its American Rescue Plan money than CPS.

Board members said they sympathized with the challenges, but were clearly unhappy. Luisiana Meléndez said students need academic and emotional support now.

“Timely intervention really matters to prevent growing problems in their learning, in their social emotional development, in how they are prepared to succeed in school and beyond,” she said. “So I am a little discouraged by the low amount of investment so far.”

Member Elizabeth Todd-Breland added: “The needs among students … our families … amongst teachers, paraprofessionals, staff, principals, everybody is so great right now. And so there is some frustration about — how do you get the supports that people need to them as quickly as possible.”

Martinez pledged that he would make sure more money is spent and students see and feel a difference in the coming year. He said the district was ensuring that every school would have an intervention teacher on staff, that more schools would get additional counseling positions and teachers would get more professional development.

But he cautioned that the $1.8 billion must be spent over the next three years. As a result, Martinez says he wants to make sure whatever hires are made can be sustained after the money runs out.

“It’s a big, jumbo jet plane we’re trying to land on a very, very small landing strip — but no excuses,” Martinez said. “I am cautiously optimistic that next year will not only be a recovery year, but it’ll be the strongest recovery year ever. We are laying the foundations now to make sure that is the case.”

School leaders across the country are encountering many of the same problems, said Sheara Krvaric, who co-founded the Federal Education Group, which consults with school districts on how to spend federal money.

She said it has been surprisingly hard for schools to spend so much money in such a short period of time.

“You can’t buy $122 billion worth of stuff — there just isn’t that much stuff,” she said. “How many tests and Lysol wipes and laptops are we gonna buy?”

School districts are also struggling to hire contractors to provide student services, like tutoring or mental health supports. Krvaric said contractors, like districts, are also struggling to hire enough staff.

Chicago principals say all these problems converged as they tried to spend the money the school district put in their budgets last summer for whatever they thought their schools needed. They could buy computers, fund after-school activities or purchase supplies or materials.

Some $124 million has been allocated to school budgets. About $33 million is still available, while another $30 million has been put aside for staff that has yet to be hired or goods that have yet to be bought, according to a WBEZ analysis of American Rescue Plan spending through Feb. 16.

Bass elementary school principal Carolyn Jones said she was giddy when she learned last summer how much money she would have to spend. As a principal for a decade at a small Englewood school on the South Side, she had a bucket list of things she wanted for her students but had been unable to make happen.

She saw the extra federal money as a “blowing of fresh air. So in addition to how you normally function, we’re now going to give you resources above that to build the kind of program you think will be most successful.”

One of her desires was to create a real counseling program, rather than having just one counselor on staff who had many responsibilities in addition to supporting students. With this federal money, she wanted to hire a second counselor and maybe even a counselor assistant. Her vision is for most students to get some kind of group counseling on a regular basis.

Returning to school after a year and a half of the pandemic, Jones said she thought it was more important than ever.

“We’ve had children who have recently lost family members to violence or the pandemic or otherwise, and to assume or think that those impacts are not real and don’t affect what happens when they show up every day, it’s just unfair,” she said. “And so yes, we’ve seen it, we’ve felt it, we’ve had to try and shift.”

But by March, she’d only been able to find a part-time counselor, who is still in school and finishing up an internship. Jones said she hopes to be able to bring that counselor on full-time next school year.

Jones has been able to use the federal money to bring on more after-school programs, though not quite as many as she would like, and many of them are just starting this spring.

Yet, she said she is pleased that she’s been able to do special things for her students, things that other schools may take for granted,. For example, she welcomed students back for in-person learning with a huge back-to-school bash.

“Where [in the past] budgetarily, we may only be able to have a bouncy house or two, we laid out all the stops: bouncy houses galore, food, prizes, giveaways, because we wanted to create a buzz and some excitement,” she said.

Then, on Feb. 2, when Chicago Public Schools was in session despite a huge snow storm, she made the day super fun.

“We had scooters in the hallway, we had balloons, we had snacks,” she said. “It was really like, yes, it’s a snow day, but we’re gonna make the best of it. We used the funds for that … to make the school a happy place.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.