President Joe Biden and congressional leaders are beginning to battle over how much money to distribute to help Americans and their communities recover from COVID-19 — and how it ought to be split. That makes this the right time to look at one thing that went wrong with the first big stimulus package, and how funding for school districts was misdirected because of it.
The $2 trillion stimulus passed in March was wrong in a tiny detail. Funding was directed to counties, and towns with populations of more than 500,000. The only town in the nation that large is Hempstead, which received $133 million that otherwise would have gone to Nassau County, which received only $103 million.
Suffolk, just a bit more populous than Nassau, received $257 million.
It was a bonanza for Republican Hempstead Town Supervisor Donald Clavin because the damage the coronavirus caused to revenue and spending was minimal compared to the county’s woes.
Clavin did some good things in the town with the money, giving $4 million to hospitals, $8 million to colleges, $4 million for COVID-19 testing, $6 million for food pantries and millions more for various PPE initiatives.
But he also helped his operating budget by devoting $70.1 million to town payroll, including $43 million for the sanitation department and $8.3 million for the water department, leaving Hempstead with a massive surplus.
And when the Hempstead school district, struggling to educate in a pandemic, called on Clavin last spring to ask for nearly $1 million to assure every student had the computing devices and broadband access for distance learning, Clavin hemmed and hawed. In the end, he said he and the town’s Washington law firm weren’t sure such funding would be legal, though the law’s wording suggested it was.
Then, as time was running out to dedicate the money in December before it got clawed back, Clavin dispersed $5.5 million to the town’s school districts, divvied up not by need, or even enrollment, but instead at a flat rate.
Each of the town’s 36 districts received $150,000, a method of dividing the money that helped smaller districts, many of which are low-need, a lot more than larger ones that are in many cases high-need.
The Hempstead school district enrolls about 7,000 students, only 23% of whom meet state proficiency standards. Hispanic students make up 72% of the enrollment, many of them not native English speakers, and Black students make up 25%. The $21 per student that the district got won’t go far.
The North Merrick school district serves about 1,200 students, 85% of them white, and 67% of them proficient. It got $125 per student.
The law shouldn’t have given the Town of Hempstead this money. And once Hempstead got the money, it should have distributed it with an eye toward fairness that reflected need and not politics.
Next time, Congress must be more careful about where the money goes, and clearer about how it can and must be used.
— The editorial board