Chalkbeat Newark senior reporter Patrick Wall checks the Coronavirus Relief funds in the state's largest school district
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Patrick Wall, senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, chats with WBGO Journal host and News Director Doug Doyle about some of his latest articles focuses on the challenges facing the state's largest school district.
One of Wall's most recent articles focused on how Newark Public Schools plans to use COVID-19 relief monies.
"This is one of the biggest, I think, issues nationwide right now. Congress allocated 123-billion dollars to help schools across the country reopen and students recover from the pandemic. Because, as you know, schools closed down for a year or more in some places and that had a big impact on students' learning and their mental health, so this funding is supposed to help students recover. One thing that Chalkbeat is doing is kind of looking at how districts are choosing to spend that money and where it's going. That's what prompted me to look at it here and see how it's being allocated and all the money hasn't been spent but we do have the applications that show the district's spending plan."
After checking the budget proposal, Wall noticed some surprising allocation requests that were approved for Newark.
"Just for some context, Newark Public Schools, which is the largest district in New Jersey, is getting 281-million dollars over three packages of relief money, which is a huge amount. If you remember when Mark Zuckerberg and other donors gave to the district to spur all these reforms, that was a total of 200-million, so this much larger than that. The first round of money they spent on things I think you would assume, this would go to towards sanitizing, supplies for schools, PPE and laptops for students. The second round, similar things. There was also teacher pay for overtime to do tutoring, but there were some expenditures, about 12 percent of that second pot of money that were harder to see that kind of direct connection to the pandemic. So that was things like 6-million dollars for new athletic fields and gym floors, 2.4 million for security cameras, half a million for machines to polish floors, money for cars even, 25-thousand dollars for promotional videos. So things the district probably has a need for them certainly, but I when you get to the spirit of the law, which was to help schools reopen and students recover, it's a little bit less clear how that connects."
What's been the reaction to his reporting on the expenditures?
"The district makes the point, and it's true, first of all the state approved its allocation. And so the state said this was okay. I think there is some question about how closely the state looked at all these applications because they're under the gun to get this money out. It's unclear how rigorous the review was. And second, the district makes the point, and this is also true, that these fall under these very broad allowable uses of this money and that's because Congress had really to leave it open because at the beginning of the pandemic, it was really unclear what schools would need to do, everything was up in the air. Since that time there have been Congress people who made this law have said you know the intention was to help schools reopen and students recover. So, I think the question is not whether this falls within the letter of the law, it's more the spirit of the law."
Patrick Wall's reporting has also focused on what's ahead when it comes to space in the district. The Newark school district plans to lease a former Catholic school building so it can open a new school, Ironbound Academy. It will join a growing list of schools the district has opened in recent years. Wall says the Newark school district is finding creative ways to acquire classroom space.
"This is happening almost parallel to COVID. While so much attention is on the pandemic, the district has this other initiative which is to grow. People who were around Newark in the past when the state controlled the district might remember that at that point they were trying to downsize. They were closing schools that were under-enrolled and selling buildings. The new superintendent, and this is now we're back in local control, really has a mission to grow the district, to add more students and to open schools. To do that, they need space."
Wall was previously interim bureau chief and a reporter for Chalkbeat New York. Patrick started his career as a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools before earning a master’s degree in journalism from CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. He’s been published in The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and DNAinfo, among other publications. He was a Spencer Education-Reporting Fellow at Columbia University and won a national beat reporting award from the Education Writers Association.
You can see the entire conversation with Patrick Wall here.