Audit: NC gave millions to schools for coronavirus relief without means to track spending

Posted December 2, 2020 10:18 a.m. EST
Updated December 2, 2020 7:21 p.m. EST

— The state Department of Public Instruction gave more than $140 million in coronavirus relief aid to schools across North Carolina without any means to track the use and effectiveness of the money, according to an audit released Wednesday.

The money, for nutrition programs, purchases of computers and other electronics and summer learning programs, came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The audit doesn't cite any evidence that money was actually misspent, only that ways to keep track of it were missing.

The audit found that DPI distributed $31 million for supplemental summer instruction without a way to ensure that it improved student achievement

According to the audit, DPI did not measure how many students participated in the program, what percentage of those students showed improvement in reading or math or whether the program met student needs.

DPI said it was not required by the terms of the CARES Act to measure that performance.

The agency also noted in a statement that a contract for "a diagnostic tool to measure student learning to maximize individual student learning opportunities" was terminated by the State Board of Education against the advice of DPI subject-matter experts, leaving schools with less ability to measure the impact of the programs.

Another $37 million for student nutrition services was handed out without a means to measure results

The audit found DPI outlined goals for the nutrition program, including "providing meals for the most vulnerable, food-insecure children and protecting the health and well-being of children, families and employees through social distancing and personal hygiene measures," but it didn't create any way to measure whether those goals were met.

"We fully stand by how we distributed nutrition funds," DPI said in a statement. "These funds were meant to ensure children usually fed at school, and even those who weren’t, would not go hungry during this pandemic while schools were closed. Additional requirements that some would demand would have likely risked that already vulnerable children across North Carolina would have gone hungry.

"Put another way, when it comes to trying to feed hungry children during a pandemic, DPI did not let the perfect stand in the way of the good," the agency added.

Also, $76 million more came from the State Coronavirus Relief Fund without a method to detect misuse

To date, $316 million has been allocated to public education from the state fund.

The funds were to be used "to support the Department’s operations and ensure that the State can continue to achieve the mission of providing a sound public education to the approximately 1.5 million students enrolled in North Carolina during the pandemic."

In response, DPI said it didn't monitor spending because a manager position in the Monitoring and Compliance Division was vacant.

According to the audit, "The Department stated that it plans to monitor the use of the Recovery Act funds at the public school units after December 30, 2020. However, it will be too late to monitor spending then because all of the funds are required to be spent by December 30, 2020."

"Much of the coronavirus relief funds in question are funding programs that run through the end of December," DPI said in a statement. "When these programs are complete, as per statutory language, DPI will compile a report for the General Assembly to review."