Michigan schools tried to use COVID aid for equity consulting, vaping and motion detectors
The proposed spending was eventually deleted, according to documents obtained by open records requests.
The Center Square discovered the removed spending by filing more than 100 records requests to school
The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook
Nineteen vape detectors, $550,000 in equity coaching, motion sensors, and metal detectors are some items deleted from Michigan schools’ initial COVID spending plans.
The Center Square discovered the removed spending by filing more than 100 records requests to school districts statewide in an attempt to learn how schools plan to spend more than $6 billion in recovery pandemic funds.
Kevin Walters, supervisor of Grants Coordination and School Support for the Michigan Department of Education, said that the state worked with school districts to ensure allowable spending.
“If an item is blatantly unallowable, we will note that, and they will remove it from the budget completely and replace it with an item that is allowable,” Walters said in a phone interview.
MDE can also ask follow-up questions about items. The 2021 applications were “how schools intended to spend funds after meaningful consultation with their local community,” Walters said. “That does not mean that those items are approved.”
“Even when some local communities say this is important, it still has to meet the letter of the law to be in there,” Walters said.
The Hemlock Public School District initially said it would buy 19 vape detectors “to reduce the risk of exposure to environmental health hazards while supporting student health needs while simultaneously improving the indoor air quality in school facilities.”
However, those items weren't purchased using COVID funds. Walters said that vape detectors are “clearly not allowable,” despite some schools trying to link vaping to learning loss because kids who are vaping in the bathroom aren’t in the classroom learning.
“We do not view vape detectors as improving indoor air quality," Walters said. "Vape detectors have not been allowed in any of the budgets [funded by COVID relief].”
That means schools can’t use COVID funds to buy them; Schools can use general fund dollars.
Hemlock Public School District “does not have any vape detectors in any of our approved COVID relief fund budgets,” Secretary to the Superintendent Lela Gronski told The Center Square in an email.
Alanson Public Schools, Mason County Central Schools, Sturgis Public Schools, and Windover High School also planned to install either vape or motion detectors, according to initial COVID spending plans.
WHS budgeted $15,000 to install vape or motion detectors in bathrooms to alert staff “when there is an excess of movement in the bathrooms or vape smoke,” which it claimed would help with social distancing.
Kalamazoo Public Schools planned to buy metal detectors with COVID funds, part of $1 million in security spending, but later diverted funding to elementary teacher salaries and benefits.
Grand Rapids Public Schools initially planned to spend $550,000 on Tammy Campbell, a national equity coach who runs an education consulting firm called The Scholar First. However, that amount didn’t reach the final COVID spending plan.
So far, the state's eighth largest school district has spent $106,000 of Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief II and III funds on services from The Scholar First and $168,000 on instructional coaching with other agencies, GRPS Director of Communications Leon Hendrix told The Center Square in an email.
Like at least five other schools, Hemlock Public School also planned to buy therapy dogs with ESSER funds. Walters said that the school could contract with vendors to provide therapy dogs, but can’t purchase live animals with ESSER funds. Also, carpet replacement with carpet isn't allowable; it must be a different surface easier to clean.
“I don’t want it to appear that we are nitpicky, but we are thorough,” Walters said.