Michigan is charging a $10,000 fee for data on districts’ COVID relief spending plans

Will COVID relief funds help Michigan students recover?

Michigan’s education system received $6.2 billion in federal COVID aid to help school districts mitigate the pandemic’s impact on students.

Now state officials want to charge journalists $10,620 for access to public records that contain detailed, updated information on how districts across the state plan to spend that money.

Chalkbeat requested the data from the Michigan Department of Education in May under the state’s Freedom of Information Act as part of a reporting collaboration with Bridge Michigan and the Detroit Free Press. Reporters have campaigned for months against the fee, arguing that the information is a public record that should be made available free of charge.

State officials say the fee — which is significantly higher than what Michigan authorities typically charge for requests for information — is required to cover the cost of reviewing the data for possible privacy issues. To fulfill Chalkbeat’s requests without compromising confidential information, it said, “a careful review of 42 detailed federal grant applications and hundreds of lines of budget description in one portion of the application and an additional 2,421 applications and thousands of other lines of budget description in one Part of the application is required to be part 2”, along with the redacting of any personal information.

Lawyers and advocates for transparency in government say the high MDE fee violates the spirit of freedom of information laws.

“One of the big problems with Michigan FOIA is that public entities can hide behind inflated fees to confuse the public about their own business,” said Herschel Fink, legal counsel for the Detroit Free Press.

The documents requested by the reporters contain line-by-line written explanations of how each district planned to spend COVID relief funds. The data provides the most up-to-date and detailed picture of proposed spending – a tool that could help teachers and parents advocate for their priorities and raise concerns when they disagree with their district’s spending plans.

Districts have used the funds to hire social workers, expand summer school, hire tutors, and purchase curriculum, among many other permitted uses.

District officials are required by law to seek community input on their spending plans, but they are not required to share more than broad outlines of the plans they submit to MDE. Some districts have gone to great lengths to publish details of their intended spending; others not.

Individuals could attempt to obtain the detailed data or other records themselves from MDE or their local district. MDE has signaled that it is ready to release Chalkbeat-requested documents—specifically, the budget detail page from districts’ applications for COVID relief grants—to individual districts.

need for up-to-date data

Central to Chalkbeat’s request for records is the public need for updated information on how districts intend to spend their federal COVID-related resources. The funds fuel nationwide efforts to address the academic and emotional strains that have resulted from the pandemic.

Michigan, like all states, releases extensive information about school spending, but this data lacks details about which contractor districts intend to use for specific programs, for example. In addition, this information is published every January for the previous school year. This means that the expenses recorded in September may not be published until more than a year later.

But parents and educators want to be kept up to date on districts’ spending on COVID relief, said Maria Lograsso, a parent, Harper Woods teacher and organizer of the Michigan Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a group of unionized school workers.

“Not only do parents want to know that their children are getting what they need, but teachers also need to know that educators are getting what they need to help students recover from the pandemic.”

The teachers’ unions also have an interest in this data because they can use the district’s spending priorities as leverage when negotiating contracts. The federal dollars can be used to improve teachers’ working conditions, for example by reducing class sizes or hiring support staff such as school counselors.

“It’s about transparency and democracy,” said Toni Coral, President of the Hamtramck Federation of Teachers. “This is federal tax money, and we should have an accounting system. I think the information should be available. It seems to me that if you are trying to get people to trust, believe in and work with you, the information should be made public.”

The state says it is concerned about confidentiality

To receive federal COVID relief funds, every district in Michigan — more than 800 in total, including charter schools — must submit detailed budgets to the state. District officials submit a form online explaining item by item how they intend to spend their grant funds.

Some districts suggested spending the money on just a few things—like technology or salaries. Others submitted complex budgets with hundreds of lines.

Chalkbeat asked state officials in December 2021 for copies of the first spending proposals submitted by then. A departmental employee emailed Chalkbeat the full dataset in a spreadsheet with more than 30,000 rows.

Each row in the table contained the name of the district, a dollar amount of the proposed spending, and an explanation of how the money would be spent, among other data points.

The data looks something like this:

An example of the requested COVID spending plan data

Grant district description Proposed total expenses
American rescue plan Lansing Public School District Additional hours for certified teachers to address learning losses in programming for two school years in the extended year. ($32.35/hr X 20,000 hrs) $977,000
American rescue plan Lansing Public School District iPads for student learning and connecting with teachers. (504 x $443 each) $223,272
American rescue plan Lansing Public School District Art supplies, glue, paint, brushes, markers, crayons, crayons, paper, notebooks, stationery, staplers, poster board, activity cards, erasers, binders, poster board, manipulatives, magnetic letters and numbers to support programming and services for EL students at all 8th LAP locations $20,000

Data is current as of December 2021.

Source: Michigan Department of Education

The data requested by Chalkbeat and its reporting partners goes beyond other publicly available records on COVID relief spending: it includes a “Description” column that provides written explanations for each item of proposed spending. Typically, the publicly available records group school expenses into broad categories, making it difficult to pinpoint expenses for specific programs.

According to MDE, the descriptions are at the heart of his concerns about Chalkbeat’s request for updated budgets, as they could include a student’s name or other personal information that’s exempt from public records.

In months of working with the data, Chalkbeat has not come across a student name.

When school districts submit the data to the state, they are instructed not to provide student names or other information that the department is not permitted to release. MDE officials estimated it would take an employee making $35 an hour, including benefits, 300 hours to peruse the data if schools didn’t follow those instructions. They later increased that estimate to 807 hours—equivalent to 100 working days.

“MDE has worked tirelessly to respond to FOIA requests involving federal COVID dollars for schools in a timely and complete manner,” MDE spokesman Martin Ackley said in an email. “Some requests, like the one Chalkbeat submitted, require more time and effort to respond.”

The employee who posted the early 2021 dates to Chalkbeat later said he didn’t want to share the description field.

Ackley noted that the state has provided financial information about the COVID relief funds in an allocation portal on its website.

This portal connects to information on how much COVID funding districts have received, but not how they intend to spend it. MDE also published written summaries from districts of their spending plans, but these summaries typically did not include specific spending proposals.

For example, the Lansing Public School District said in its publicly available spending description that it plans to provide “additional after-school programs, as well as tutoring and summer classes, to designated students to provide accelerated and continued instruction due to the learning loss from COVID-19.” ”

However, the district’s detailed budget that Chalkbeat received in December 2021 indicated that the extended year program alone would include paying teachers for an additional 20,000 hours of work over two years at a cost of $977,000.

In any case, state officials shouldn’t charge for releasing the updated information, said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager at the Michigan Press Association, even if it’s permitted under Michigan’s notoriously weak public records law.

“If you’re going to spend that kind of money, you should get the information together” about how it’s being spent, she said. “Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going and they shouldn’t have to pay to find out.”

Jarrett Skorup, communications director for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank, said the MDE should already have the data in a format ready for publication.

“It’s bizarre that the Michigan Department of Education was able to provide similar documents very quickly a few months ago, but is unable to do so now,” Skorup said. “These are documents or data that school districts fill out and send to the state. It seems like they should…compile this information into a spreadsheet.”

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at [email protected].


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