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Richmond School Board approves internal audit of COVID relief funds

Richmond School Board member Stephanie Rizzi attends a 2021 School Board meeting
Crixell Matthews
Richmond School Board member Stephanie Rizzi attends a 2021 School Board meeting. Rizzi supported the push for an audit of COVID relief spending, which was approved unanimously earlier this week. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

During a Monday meeting, the Richmond School Board unanimously approved an internal audit of how it spent federal COVID-19 relief funds from March 2020 through December 2021. A district official told the board the audit is expected to take about six months to complete with an audit staff of two people.

Board members not only want to see what the money was spent on but how it impacted student outcomes. The district’s focus on increasing student literacy is reflected in the most recent draft plan it submitted to the Virginia Department of Education. 

For example, the district outlined plans to invest $2.4 million on 27 full-time reading interventionists. According to a district spokesperson, 17 of those positions have been filled. $990,000 was allocated for a cohort of teachers to receive tuition reimbursement for a reading specialist training program with the University of Virginia. 

“I'm interested in the money, but I'm more interested in the outcomes of the money,” board member Lizz Doerr said during a July 18 School Board meeting. “I don't know how we incorporate that into the audit. But I think that that's the real conversation that we should be having.”

Another recent internal RPS audit  raised questions about the district’s purchases of Chromebooks. The district’s most recent draft plan for its second round of federal relief funds calls for a “laptop refresh” of $3 million, plus $3.7 million for student laptop replacement. That’s on top of a proposed $5.7 million for computers in the first round of relief funds. RPS was not able to answer VPM News’ questions about these line items by deadline.

Richmond Public Schools presented a report on COVID relief spending at the July School Board meeting, but multiple board members requested additional details about how those funds are being spent.

“I think what happened with the Chromebooks is enough for me to be interested in seeing an audit,” board member Stephanie Rizzi said during the meeting. “I don't think this is about ‘gotchas,’ as much as it is for learning purposes to know how we can do better.”

While documents VDOE provided to VPM News show the district’s high-level plans for how to spend the funds, it’s not clear how closely RPS has followed these estimates. VPM News is still seeking more detailed information about the spending from the state and district.

According to Charles Pyle, director of communications for VDOE, school divisions do not turn in receipts, invoices and employee-level payroll reports to the state in order to get reimbursed. Instead, they simply provide “a description of the expenditure and the amount.”

“Just because we have a breakdown of what was spent doesn't necessarily show us how it was spent or what it was spent on,” board member Nicole Jones said during the July board meeting.

School districts across the country have received three separate rounds of COVID-19 relief funds totaling $190 billion collectively since the pandemic began. The most recent round of funding was the largest distribution yet at $122 billion. At least 20% of the funds must be used to address learning loss.

Since the pandemic began, Richmond Public Schools has received more than $200 million in federal relief funds. According to VDOE figures, RPS has spent nearly all the $13.8 million from its first allotment of COVID relief funds. The district has spent roughly three-quarters of the $56.6 million from the second round as well as about a quarter of the $130.8 million in their latest round of COVID relief funds.

Districts have about two more years — until September 2024 — to spend the federal dollars they’ve received.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.