Secrecy Shrouds Pandemic Spending at Some California Schools

Burlingame schools spent more than $300,000 on Chromebooks. Long Beach Unified spent nearly $13,000 on music recorders. Redding Elementary School District spent about $1,800 on a reading intervention program.

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Districts bought hand sanitizer from Amazon, printer cartridges from Office Depot and hot spots from T-Mobile. Schools issued purchase orders for textbooks, counseling services and buses — all detailed in response to CalMatters’ public records requests.

Some California school districts, though, simply won’t say how they’ve spent their pandemic money, courtesy of American taxpayers.

In the past two years, state and federal lawmakers passed an array of measures that allocated $33.5 billion in one-time funds to California’s K-12 schools to address the pandemic’s impacts. With no central accounting for that unprecedented infusion of cash, CalMatters spent three months examining stimulus spending at select school districts.

Oakland Unified and San Francisco Unified both refused to provide spending records to CalMatters. Four other districts, including Los Angeles Unified, haven’t said no — they just haven’t provided any records more than two months after being asked.

Some district officials complain about an overwhelming amount of reporting requirements: quarterly expenditure reports to the state, spending plans for certain funds, special federal audits for districts that receive larger amounts of money.

Even so, the specific vendors receiving massive paydays and the actual items districts are purchasing are often a mystery, education advocates and some parents said.

To begin to understand where the money is actually going, CalMatters submitted public records requests in March to more than 30 California public school districts – including the 20 biggest and 10 random districts that represent the geographic and demographic diversity of the state. We also asked for records from a chain of nine virtual charter schools.

Documents showing how governments spend taxpayer money are among the most basic available under the California Public Records Act. Agencies are supposed to respond to requests within 10 days, although they can delay actual production if they need additional time to compile the records. If they deny a record, the requester can sue.

Some districts responded almost immediately, providing spreadsheets with transaction-level detail and extra records to help interpret the data.

Others proved more difficult. Several districts initially pointed to generic reports with lump sum categories of spending posted online. Another provided a PDF in which the names of vendors were illegible. After being reminded of their obligation under the state’s public records act and notified that other districts had readily complied, most relented.

“Nothing’s more basic to transparency than accounting for how public agencies spend money,” said David Loy, the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition’s legal director. “You’re spending the public’s money. You should be accounting for how you’re doing it.”

The biggest district in the state — Los Angeles Unified — acknowledged CalMatters’ March 14 request but had not provided any records as of this week. Three other districts — Stockton Unified, Elk Grove Unified in Sacramento County and Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified in Humboldt County — also have yet to provide the records months after they were requested. Stockton and Elk Grove are among the state’s 20 largest.

The California Virtual Academies, nine charter schools closely tied to a publicly traded corporation, provided spending records for last fiscal year only. But the schools refused to provide any records for this fiscal year. Francis Burke, the schools’ business official, told CalMatters in an email that the accounting for various expenditures can change over the course of a year. The schools won’t release additional records until later this year, Burke wrote.

Oakland Unified, which refused multiple times to provide any detailed spending records, had been in trouble before on its stimulus spending. According to state records, the district misspent stimulus funds last fiscal year and had to reimburse $1 million from other accounts.

“Unfortunately, The District is unable to locate any document responsive to your request,” Geri Baskind, a district legal assistant, wrote in response to CalMatters’ March 3 request for records.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters


  1. Of course there’s secrecy. Theft and corruption is best done in the dark and lying about it in the open, is the democrat’s standard operating procedure.

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