State auditor: DPI spent federal coronavirus relief money without plan to monitor effectiveness, spending

Staffers distribute meals at a Triangle-area school in March

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spent $76 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds on a summer learning program, nutrition services and other economic support for schools without procedures in place to monitor spending or to determine whether the money achieved desired results, according to an audit released Tuesday by the Office of the State Auditor.

The money is part of $3.59 billion the state received through the federal government through the CARES Act.

DPI received $316 million to support its operations during the pandemic. It passed much of the money on to school districts.

In part, the audit found that DPI distributed:

  • $31 million of Coronavirus Relief Funds for the Summer Learning Program without a method to ensure student ability was improved.
  • $37 million of Coronavirus Relief Funds for nutrition services without establishing a method to measure results.

“The Department of Public Instruction [DPI] did not monitor federal funds distributed to public school units to provide economic support in the wake of COVID-19,” the audit stated. “As a result, there was an increased risk that public school units could have misused the funds without the misuse being detected.”

The two items were the focus of the findings but cover only a portion of Relief Funds distributed to the Summer Learning Program and nutrition services.

The total allocation for school nutrition was $75 million to provide meals for students and families after the pandemic forced schools to close in mid-March. The Summer Learning Program received $70 million to provide supplemental summer learning programs for students in grades K-4 whose learning was negatively affected by the pandemic. Approximately $31 million had been distributed as of Aug. 31.

But the audit’s scope also covers $30 million allocated to buy computers or other electronic devices for students and $5 million to purchase computers or other electronic devices for use by school personnel.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI issued a statement Wednesday blaming the State Board of Education for the lack of monitoring in the Summer Learning Program,

“NC public schools had a diagnostic tool to measure student learning to maximize individual student learning opportunities, but the contract for that diagnostic tool was terminated by the State Board of Education, against the advice of DPI subject matter experts,” DPI’s statement said. “The Board’s termination left NC public schools with less ability to measure the impact of these programs.”

The statement refers to the state board’s termination of the state’s contract with Istation, the vendor contracted by Superintendent Mark Johnson to provide North Carolina with the K-3 reading diagnostic tool mandated by the General Assembly as part of the North Carolina’s Read to Achieve legislation.

The $8.3 million contract award led to months of legal wrangling. Amplify, a competing vendor, filed a protest with the NC Department of Information Technology charging that the contract was unfairly awarded to Istation.

DPI also stood behind its distribution of funds to nutrition services.

“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,” DPI said. Additional requirements that some would demand would have likely risked that already vulnerable children across NC 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.”

But without proper monitoring, the Department could not detect misuse of Recovery Act funds, the audit said.

Summer learning program

The audit found that DPI spent $31 million on its summer learning program without establishing procedures to ensure that it improved students’ ability to read or do math.

It also failed to ensure that students negatively impacted by the pandemic were identified so they could participate in the program, and didn’t record the percentage of identified students who actually participated in the program, the audit said.

DPI did create a policy that included the program purpose and eligible uses for the money, the audit said, but did not establish procedures to ensure the program improved student ability.

“As a result, the Department [DPI] spent $31 million in taxpayer money without knowing how much or even whether student ability was improved.

DPI should “gather the information needed to determine how much or even whether student ability was improved by the summer learning program,” the audit recommended.

School nutrition

DPI distributed $37 million for nutrition services to ensure school lunches continued for children and families that needed them after schools closed for in-person instruction in March.

The auditor’s office charged that DPI failed to establish a method to ensure the lunches achieved results.

As a result, DPI doesn’t know whether:

  • All the children who needed lunches received them.
  • Social distancing and personal hygiene measures were sufficient to protect the health of children, families and employees.
  • Schools only received the amount needed to sustain their nutrition program.

“The Department said it did not establish a method to measure results because public school units were allowed to use the funds in numerous ways which made measurement difficult,” the audit said. “However, best practices required the Department to measure whether intended results were achieved.”

The auditor’s office recommended that DPI “gather the information needed to determine whether the intended results of its Recovery Act spending were achieved.”

In its response, DPI blamed the lack of monitoring on a management vacancy in the Monitoring and Compliance Division.

“This position remained vacant until the end of August 2020. During that time, the Department decided to transition this entire section under the leadership of the Internal Audit Division,” DPI said in its response. “Due to the extended vacancy and moving of the position and responsibilities, the Department chose to postpone monitoring until the position was filled to ensure the new manager could provide input into the process.”

A department vacancy doesn’t exempt DPI from federal regulations that require it to monitor school district’s spending of Recovery Act funds, the audit said.

DPI will compile a report for the General Assembly that details how the money was monitored and spent, the agency’s statement said.

“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 NC statutory language, DPI will compile a report for the General Assembly to review.”

Johnson’s tenure as superintendent will end this month. Catherine Truitt is the Superintendent-elect.

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