Last week’s News & Observer highlights the Wake County School Board’s decision to approve $1.4 million in coaching and tutoring programs to aid math and reading skills among students.

There is a clear need for such programs.

Test scores haven’t been released yet, but data from last year show test results from 2021-2022 are still below pre-pandemic levels.  In addition, more than a few parents have expressed concern about the need to address learning loss and the lack of rigor in some of Wake’s math programs.

What is not clear is why the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) has been slow to invest in tutoring at a time when the district has been flush with Covid cash.

A recent review of federal Covid expenditures for WCPSS shows the district has received $443.07 million in Covid funding.  Of that amount, WCPSS has spent $349.26 million. Approximately 21% of all funds — $93.8 million — remains unspent.

So how has WCPSS been spending Covid money?

About 66% of all funds have been used for salaries, another 12% for benefits. That means over three quarters of every federal dollar WCPSS spent on Covid relief was spent on salaries or benefits. The district’s total spending for tutoring — $482,227 — comprised 0.14% of total Covid spending.

The $1.4 million in spending the school board approved is not included in the current figures, which include spending up to June 29, 2023. Even if the amounts were included with total expenditures, the total for tutoring would only increase marginally.

How do these patterns compare with other large districts in North Carolina?

Two observations emerge from cursory comparisons of Covid spending in the five largest school districts in North Carolina. The percentage spent on salaries and benefits is much higher in Wake County than in other school districts. WCPSS spends approximately 66% of Covid funds on salaries and approximately 12% on benefits. The percentage of Covid funds WCPSS spends on salaries and benefits is higher than all of the large school districts. The combined percentage of the two categories (78%) is the highest by a large margin. (Wake 78%, Charlotte 61%, Forsythe 58%, Cumberland 51%, and Guilford 49%.)

The other number that pops out from a general comparison is that the percentage WCPSS spends on tutoring — 0.14% — is by far the lowest among the five largest districts. Spending for the other four districts includes Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (0.33%), Cumberland County Schools (1.38%), Forsythe County Schools (2.16%), and Guilford County Schools (3.75%).

WCPSS officials have been talking a lot about learning loss and the importance of ensuring children are progressing academically. If WCPSS is truly concerned about struggling students, they need to put their money where their mouth is. The dollars are there. Instead of spending them on students who have suffered from the pandemic and learning loss, WCPSS is choosing to pay salaries and benefits.

Why? This is a question district officials should be willing to answer.

Covid Spending for Five Largest School Districts in North Carolina, 2020-2023

Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Covid Spending Tables

Note: The figures in the above table reflect expenditures up to June 29, 2023. “Tutoring” reflects the sum of tutor (within the instructional day) in line 143 and tutorial pay in line 198 in NCDPI’s Covid Spending Tables.