FILE - Elementary classroom with children taking test

(The Center Square) – Many Michigan schools are spending one-time federal COVID relief dollars on pay hikes that will increase the long-term taxpayer cost of education, according to more than 80 records requests filed by The Center Square.

More than 800 districts are spending $5.7 billion of COVID-19 relief to recover learning loss detailed by dismal state test scores and a federal report that noted the most significant learning loss in decades.

Holly Wetzel, the director of public relations of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, urged schools to spend the money to recover learning loss instead of increasing long-term spending.

“School districts should consider the long-term impacts of how the COVID relief funds are being spent," Wetzel said in a statement. "When districts decide to use a one-time relief payment for something that will have a long-term cost, they must be prepared for a financial strain that their future budgets may not be equipped for. Instead, these funds would be better spent helping the thousands of students who suffered learning losses caused by the forced school closures.”

The Detroit Public Community Schools District credited its few teaching vacancies to using COVID-19 funds to hire a teacher bench to compensate for retirement and resignations, as well as raising pay.

“Unlike other Districts, we are not experiencing teacher staffing issues,” DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement. “The District only has a few schools with more than one teacher vacancy, and only about 30 teacher vacancies districtwide due to last-minute resignations. This is due to our increases to teacher salaries over the years and the development of our own teacher pipeline. Our staffing challenges rest with hourly employees, mainly cafeteria workers. However, these vacancies will not impact the serving of student breakfast and lunch at each of our schools.”

The DPSCD's average teacher pay is $72,000 for teachers with a master's degree. In 2017, DPSCD said it had over 400 teacher vacancies or 12% of schools were fully staffed, but says every school will be fully staffed with teachers this year.

DPSCD spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said staffed teachers and family engagement are together “the most important factor to raising student achievement.”

Other schools are also spending COVID funds hiring additional staff and learning specialists but its unclear whether the spending is temporary or long-term. For example, Saginaw Public School District plans to spend $44 million of its $64 million of COVID relief on reclassifying teachers.

Benton Harbor Area Schools spent $2.4 million on pay increases for elementary, middle, and high school teachers who taught during the pandemic. The ongoing spending increase follows the school district nearly shuttering in 2019, but thanks to nearly $47 million of COVID-19 relief, BHAS flipped its $18 million debt in 2019 to a $3.1 million surplus in 2021.

Dearborn Public Schools is spending $9.7 million of COVID-19 money on a permanent pay schedule increase.

“This increased pay schedule will later need to be funded through general fund dollars,” a DPS spending breakdown says.

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.