Special Report
Federal

Stimulus Reporting Advances

Districts expected to account for first round of spending
By Michele McNeil — October 15, 2009 6 min read
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Faced with their first reporting deadlines for economic-stimulus aid to education, school districts are toiling over how every stimulus penny has been spent so far and how many jobs have been saved—numbers that will be scrutinized not just by the public, but by government auditors as well.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress in February, earmarked about $100 billion for education, and the first quarterly spending reports are scheduled to be made public on Oct. 30.

So far, details of how the stimulus money has been spent have been largely anecdotal, making the Oct. 30 date a key milestone in the Obama administration’s goal of assuring that the $787 billion stimulus program is accountable and transparent.

“They’re trying to do this delicate balance: Are they getting enough information so the public can know exactly where the money is going, and are they doing it in such a way that is not overburdening?” said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “I think the answer depends on where you sit.”

Technically, Oct. 10 was the deadline for states and other recipients of stimulus funding, such as school districts, to report through a new federal Web site how they’ve spent their money through Sept. 30. Recipients can use the remaining time between now and when the reports are made public to correct any mistakes.

However, that doesn’t mean the first reports will reveal a lot.

While the U.S. Department of Education has tried to make money available swiftly, states have been slow to spend it. As of Sept. 30, the date the first reporting period ended, states had only spent about 30 percent, or $20.7 billion, of the $67.6 billion in total education aid that’s so far available to them, according to the Education Department.

But that hasn’t made this first round of reporting any easier, since school district officials—mostly those in business offices—must put systems in place to track the money spent and jobs saved.

“The reporting requirements are so huge and so vast, they’re really quite onerous,” said John Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, based in Reston, Va. For example, officials from across the spectrum of the federal government have issued hundreds of pages of guidance and regulations, much of it highly technical, that govern how stimulus spending is to be tracked and reported.

The stakes are high because the Obama administration has been touting the success of the stimulus package in creating and saving jobs. Preliminary reports gathered by the Associated Press show that teachers have benefited the most from the stimulus package, to the tune of 62,000 education jobs in California, 8,500 in Missouri, and 5,900 in Minnesota.

Collecting Information

Tracking the Stimulus

The first quarterly reports on how states and school districts are using economic-stimulus aid to education are slated to become public Oct. 30. Education makes up about $100 billion of the $787 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

What will be reported
• Type of award (such as a grant or a contract)
• Amount
• Status of project
• Number of jobs saved and created
• Congressional district OFR recipients
• Location of headquarters for vendors used

Timeline for reporting
• The first quarterly reports cover spending activity through Sept. 30.
• The next quarterly reports will cover the period through Dec. 31 and be due in January.

Where information is reported
www.federalreporting.gov is the central Web portal through which states and all other stimulus funding recipients will report their data

Public access
• Reports are scheduled to be made available on www.recovery.gov on Oct. 30.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Recovery.gov.

While the Education Department isn’t directly involved in collecting the required information—that falls to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget—it serves two important functions: explaining the requirements to state and school officials and doing data-quality checks to ensure accuracy.

“We want this information to be good, so we’re giving them as much guidance and outreach as possible,” said Cathy Solomon, an Education Department adviser for ARRA implementation. The department has hosted numerous webinars and conference calls to explain the complicated reporting requirements, but questions are still popping up.

One reason: The OMB’s reporting requirements use a uniform accounting approach for all $787 billion in the economic-stimulus package. States and other stimulus-funding recipients are asked toprovide the same details, whether the stimulus spending is on roads, education, health, or other areas.

“The downside is the one-size-fits-all approach sometimes just doesn’t fit education,” Ms. Solomon said.

Most of the burden is falling on the states to fill in the blanks on the reporting, because they are the “prime” recipients of education stimulus money. In other words, money first flows to the states before it gets to school districts, which are usually “sub-recipients.”

Prime recipients have to report such things as the type and amount of a stimulus award or project, a description of how money has been spent, how far along a stimulus project is, and how many jobs have been saved or created. For education, states will need school districts to help them complete this reporting.

Subrecipients, including school districts, have their own reporting requirements. They have to report how they spent their money, including the amount, for which vendors, and where each vendor’s headquarters is located. (In most states, school districts still report this information to the state, which reports on their behalf to federal officials on the federalreporting.gov Web site.)

On a basic level, following the money for school districts usually means setting up separate acounting codes for stimulus money, which is intended to make it easy to generate reports on how money was spent.

But tracking every penny of stimulus money sometimes is easier said than done.

Take the example offered by Kevin Supple, the chief financial officer of the 18,000-student Francis Howell school district, in Missouri. If his district buys a new batch of computers, say 100 of them, and uses stimulus money to pay for 10, it’s important that he be able to track literally which 10 computers were paid for with stimulus money—for reporting purposes.

In the 2,151-student district in Ipswich, Mass., when it came time to calculate jobs saved or created, the district’s director of finance and operations, Joanne Cuff, was perplexed as to how to count summer tutors who earned just a few hundred dollars each.

The funds came from the stimulus package, and she needed to convert each tutor’s job into a fraction of a full-time job. The job result was miniscule, she said. She was advised to round up, but, she said, “that truly isn’t reflective of the work and the nature of the job.”

Ms. Cuff also described as a “bit ridiculous” the requirement that school officials identify the headquarters for each vendor with which they do stimulus business. For example, she said that if she buys one workbook for a special education student from the sales office of a company, she must track down where the corporate office is located.

Independently, all of these different data points that are required may seem like small tasks, but they accumulate, said Gail Zeman, a former school business official who now consults with several districts in Massachusetts.

“Anything added to a very overloaded cart is very burdensome,” Ms. Zeman said.

And these business officials know the pressure is on, because federal officials—and the public—will be paying attention to their reports.

“For me, the hardest part is trying to make sure I’m doing everything correctly, especially when it comes to the audit process we may all face,” Ms. Cuff said.

Overburdened

For some, the reporting requirements posed too high a hurdle.

The 3,000-student McComb school district in Mississippi, for example, decided not to accept interest-free construction loans available under the stimulus package, in part because of all the reporting strings attached. And in Nevada, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault questioned whether it was worth it for his state to compete for part of the $4 billion from the Race to the Top Fund, which is also part of the stimulus package, given all the additional reporting requirements that would be attached to winning a grant.

“The people I worry about are those in the rural districts, where the school business official may be the superintendent and the high school principal,” said Mr. Musso of the business officials’ association.

Nor are districts using the influx of stimulus cash to beef up their business operations to help track their spending, said Mr. Supple, the Missouri school district business official.

“We’re trying to use the money to have the greatest impact on the classroom,” he said, adding that his district reported saving 63.09 jobs so far, almost all of them related to student instruction. “We’re not adding another person in finance. We just have to find a way to manage this additional layer of work.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as States, Districts Feel Stimulus Reporting Strain

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