The data requested by Chalkbeat and its reporting partners goes beyond other publicly available records of COVID aid spending: It includes the “description” column that contains written explanations of each item of proposed spending. Generally, publicly available records group school spending into broad categories, making it difficult to pinpoint spending for specific programs.

MDE says the descriptions are at the heart of its concerns about Chalkbeat’s request for updated budgets, because they could contain a student’s name or other personal information that is exempt from public records requests.

In months of working with the data, Chalkbeat hasn’t come across a student’s name.

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

“MDE has worked tirelessly to respond promptly and as fully as possible to FOIA requests involving federal COVID dollars for schools,” MDE spokesperson Martin Ackley said in an email. “Some requests, like the one sent by Chalkbeat, take more time and effort to respond to.”

The employee who first released the data to Chalkbeat in 2021 later said he didn’t intend to share the description field.

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

That portal links to information about how much COVID funding districts have received, but not how they plan to spend it. MDE also released written summaries from districts on their ESSER plans, but those summaries typically did not contain any specific spending proposals.

For example, the Lansing Public School District stated in its description of publicly available spending that it planned to provide “supplemental after-school programs as well as mentoring and summer learning for students identified to provide accelerated and continuing education due to learning loss due to COVID-19. “

But the district’s detailed budget, which Chalkbeat obtained in December 2021, specified that the expanded annual programming alone would cost teachers an additional 20,000 hours of work over two years at a cost of $977,000.

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

“If you’re giving out that kind of money, you should compile information” about how it’s being spent, he 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 release-ready format.

“It’s strange that the Michigan Department of Education could provide similar documents very quickly a few months ago, but it can’t now,” Skorup said. “These are documents or data compiled by school districts and sent to the state — it looks 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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