Technology, Skyline deployment dominates spending by federal aid providers to Chicago Public Schools

CHICAGO — Technology companies and curriculum consultants have received nearly half of the federal stimulus money Chicago Public Schools has spent so far on outside vendors, according to purchase order data obtained by Chalkbeat.

Nearly a quarter went to five companies helping the district implement Skyline, a new curriculum that schools can choose to adopt and one of former CEO Janice Jackson’s signature initiatives. Nearly a fifth of the spending went to CDW and Apple, the main computer suppliers in the area.

The amounts are still a fraction of the $2.5 billion that Chicago schools received from the federal government’s two most recent stimulus packages for schools. The $156.6 million spent on nearly 1,000 outside providers so far represents about 6 percent of funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Response Fund, or ESSER — an unprecedented infusion of federal dollars aimed at helping students recover from massive academic and learning activities of the pandemic deterioration of mental health.

So far, Chicago has spent most of its COVID relief money on salaries and benefits, mostly for positions that existed before the pandemic hit. The district is an outlier, especially among high-poverty districts, in terms of how much of the COVID relief dollars have covered personnel costs: Of the roughly $871.9 million in spending the district reported in early July to the state, more than 85 percent went to pay and benefits — compared to an average of 27 percent for other Illinois districts. Chicago officials said those costs allowed the district to retain employees despite losing enrollment.

The data, which includes some open purchase orders that have not yet been paid, covers only spending at district-operated campuses. The district has transferred about $38.5 million to charter and contract schools as required by law, but was unable to provide more details on how the money was spent.

The county also said it recently reclassified some vendor costs previously paid with other dollars to cover them with COVID relief funds, so they weren’t included in the purchase order data provided earlier this summer.

It’s difficult to put Chicago’s outsourced COVID relief spending into a national context because there is relatively little detailed data from other areas, said Bree Dussault of the nonprofit Center on Reinventing Public Education.

“We want to see districts at least invest in something new and different to disrupt an inequitable school system that is not designed to recover well,” Dussault said. “They need to invest in new approaches.”

In Chicago, much of the money goes to longtime providers or to initiatives that were already in the works when the pandemic hit, such as the Skyline curriculum. The district also brought on new partners to provide student mental health support and other services, including a collaboration with Lurie Children’s Hospital to expand behavioral health teams in schools. The records show the hospital received just over $250,000.

Dussault stressed the importance of using the money to support and retain staff, many of whom are leaving after two difficult years of pandemic disruption. She said unveiling a high-quality curriculum can be a powerful tool to help schools recover from the academic damage of the pandemic, as long as it’s paired with teacher training and ongoing support.

The district said in a statement that it is working to spend federal dollars “carefully and deliberately.”

Overall, about 20 major vendors account for most of the spending, or more than $105 million, with schools across the city engaging other companies and organizations on a much smaller scale, sometimes to provide arts and enrichment activities for students. In addition to technology and Skyline, COVID-related costs — for masks and staff in school classrooms — also figure prominently in outside federal spending to help the district.

Here are the top 10 providers that have received Chicago Public Schools COVID relief money so far:

Mila Kumpilova is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at [email protected]

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering changes in public school education.

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