The Illinois State Board of Education has rejected Anna-Jonesboro Community High School's request to use its COVID relief dollars towards astroturf for its football field.
The disapproval of the grant application comes after heated community debate over what is and is not an appropriate use of COVID-19 relief funds.
The high school's school board voted at its July meeting on a $1.9 million spending plan that dedicated nearly half of the school’s ESSER III relief funds on astroturf for the football field.
According to guidance by the Illinois State Board of Education, allowable grant uses include providing mental health services and support, addressing the needs of low-income students and students with disabilities, helping to provide access to technology and addressing challenges associated with the coronavirus.
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When the Southern first reached out to ISBE for comment last week, the agency said they were still in the process of evaluating the school’s proposal and would be checking to see if it met the following qualifications:
Is the expenditure reasonable, necessary and allocable?
Did the district follow procurement procedures?
How does the extra-curricular program address the academic impact of lost instructional time, to support students’ social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs?
On Monday, ISBE confirmed the agency disapproved of the proposal but did not disclose why. The agency directed The Southern to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
That FOIA request is pending.
A number of concerned community members, parents and teachers have spoken out about how the funds are to be spent and said there needs to be more of a focus on mental health.
A significant but smaller portion of the school’s COVID-19 dollars is also going toward a social worker’s salary and benefits for three years; 30 Jet Pack Wi-Fi hotspot subscriptions for three years; and a HVAC system for the lower gym and related upgrades, documents show.
Paula Brue-Hasty, a parent of two children at the high school, said previously in an interview with The Southern she started advocating for other uses with the grant money for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the grant could be used to improve mental health services at the school.
Brue-Hasty said she believes many in the community didn’t know about the grant because it wasn’t being talked about publicly. She said she also believes the spending plan wasn’t widely announced and that the soccer and football parents were shown favoritism and asked for input.
Brue-Hasty said she doesn’t believe any school-wide announcement was made seeking input on how to spend the ESSER III grant dollars, adding that the majority who showed up to a June board meeting were parents of children in the football and soccer programs.
Documents obtained by a member of the public through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to The Southern show the school district hosted a Vision Team meeting on May 5 to discuss, in part, the use of the ESSER III grant dollars. Wright sent letters to the Union County Board of Commissioners, Shawnee Hills Christian Academy and selected others inviting them to attend.
Brue-Hasty previously argued the school could have conducted more outreach on social media where the school’s general population is more accessible. She said to spend the money on astroturf, rather than the school’s other pressing needs, is a misuse of the grant.
Superintendent Rob Wright could not immediately be reached for comment for this story.
While the grant application was pending, Wright previously told The Southern the people speaking in opposition may or may not not be an accurate representation of how the majority of the community feels.
“A decision has been made and some disagree. That happens. It is time to move forward in a positive manner, set aside differences and continue to serve our students and their needs. At this point, with grant already submitted, any article written portraying the school in a negative light serves no purpose but to further divide the community and, I believe, will not accurately portray the facts …” Wright said in an email previously.
Schools all across the U.S. and in Illinois have been allocated a third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Grants — or ESSER III — to assist with challenges associated with the pandemic.
The grant has been sent back to the district to be reworked. The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is Sept. 20 at the District Office in Anna.