Billions Of Stimulus Money Goes Unspent
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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Here's a story of the challenge in getting federal stimulus money into the economy. Back in April, the U.S. Education Department released billions of dollars in stimulus funds. The money went to the states. And much of the money is still sitting in state accounts, even though school districts need it. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Larry Gillespie is a patient man. He has to be. As superintendent of schools in Clay County, West Virginia, he had to wait until July to get his hands on some of those stimulus funds people in Washington keep talking about.
This clean up crew at one of the elementary school is part of a summer jobs program that Gillespie was able to restore with stimulus money.
Mr. LARRY GILLESPIE (School superintendent, Clay County, West Virginia): That money put a lot of kids to work, gave them a chance to earn some extra money, maybe some money going to college that we hadn't had in about eight years.
SANCHEZ: Down the road, though, part of a roof that blew off one of the schools last spring still hasn't been repaired, even though there's $22 billion in the stimulus package for repairing and building schools. West Virginia hasn't gotten its share of that money, says Gillespie.
Mr. GILLESPIE: I think the money to do that wasn't going to get here as quickly as they first thought. I know we were the first one to get ours approved and the bids out. We did it on July the 6th.
SANCHEZ: It's not just his unfixed roof, though. Back in March, for example, Gillespie and his tiny staff put together a list of things they thought they'd be able to purchase with stimulus funds right away: a new data system to track students' progress, a consultant to train his teachers on the best use of technology in the classroom, and more reading and math coaches.
Mr. GILLESPIE: And I tell you I think the money's there or sitting there waiting to be distributed. I think for right now they're trying to determine what kind of formula they're going to use.
SANCHEZ: Formula? That means the schools can't spend the stimulus dollars any way they want, because the money is locked into two huge federal programs -Title one, which targets lower income kids; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is explicitly for special education students. So Gillespie can only spend the money, for example, on a new special education teacher or on an after school program for his poorest kids.
The Government Accountability Office has identified billions of unspent stimulus dollars across the country. Precisely because of federal restrictions and the fact that states add their own layer of rules and regulations.
Ms. MARGUERITE ROZA (Center of Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington): It is very complicated.
SANCHEZ: Marguerite Roza is a school finance expert with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. She's been tracking the flow of stimulus funds to states and found that schools love getting more money, but are frustrated because they're not allowed to divert any of it.
Ms. ROZA: So when a district feels like a new need, like a roof, it might be tempting to say we should use the federal money. But which pot of money do I charge the new roof to?
SANCHEZ: Roza says it's also confusing for schools, because on the one hand, stimulus funds are to be used to protect existing programs. On the other hand, the Education Department says the money must be used to innovate and do things differently.
Ms. ROZA: There are definitely people who feel that those two goals are at odds. Not all 14,000 of these districts that are receiving funds have as their primary goal to change the way they're spending their money and do innovative, different things with it.
SANCHEZ: And finally, says Roza, there's a problem with the share of stimulus funds each state has received for education. When they were first released in April, many states didn't have accurate education budget projections.
Ms. ROZA: Some projections were big shortfalls in 2009. Some are 2010.
SANCHEZ: Some gloom and doom projections have turned out to be real. Others have not. So according to Roza's analysis several states ended up with huge windfalls. South Dakota, for example, thus far has gotten $187 million. Tammy Darnell, with the state's Department of Education, says the money arrived just in time.
Ms. TAMMY DARNELL (Department of Education, South Dakota): The state legislature was just beginning to deal with the budget. The governor had recommended cuts. Because we got these funds we were able to restore those to the funding formula.
SANCHEZ: Darnell says South Dakota will be able to spend 20 percent more on K-12 education this year than last year. West Virginia, meanwhile, is talking about cuts in education. Still, Clay County school superintendent Larry Gillespie, is pretty happy with the $1.1 million he'll be getting sometime this school year.
Mr. GILLESPIE: This money may be the only time we ever get this shot in the arm.
SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.