By: Katrina Crumbacher and Valerie Scott
Editor-in-Chief and Assistant Editor
Any hopes of having mobile Boys & Girls Club experiences in rural Oklahoma by the end of the year were dashed as the legislature’s special session adjourned Friday, Oct. 14.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma was just one nonprofit of 10 that were set to receive American Rescue Plan Act funding in the latest round of pandemic relief appropriations. However, funding allocations were delayed when state lawmakers failed to reach a consensus regarding YWCA’s funding proposal.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma’s proposal requested $30.1 million to build out mobile clubs and for capital needs at their 96 locations across the state. The proposed mobile clubs would have brought specialized programs to areas where The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma do not have a physical presence.
“There are some schools and a lot of rural towns in the state of Oklahoma that don’t, for various reasons, have access to a club experience,” said Teena Belcik, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County. “[We] can come with a mobile club and bring all the academic support, mentoring, sports, arts and STEM opportunities. All of those would be beneficial in many of these areas that maybe don’t have or can’t support a full-time club, but when we’re on wheels, we can go.”
Even when schools are closed, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma are open and ready to serve. However, the delay has stalled programs that were ready to hit the ground running.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County recently piloted a reading recovery program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program is designed to improve students’ reading level after the pandemic caused a widespread academic delay in learning.
“Everyone’s concerned about making sure all our kids succeed academically, but the pandemic didn’t do anybody any favors,” she said. “We were really excited to be able to implement that reading recovery program, but that’s part of the funding we were hoping to receive.” The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma and the other nine nonprofits will now have to wait until the legislature’s next session in February 2023 to receive the $95.2 million in ARPA funding left on the table:
“The legislature employees are working directly with 929 Strategies to make sure money is spent correctly. This group is unique because it is the first time the House and Senate have hired a consulting group to make sure we are complying with the rules,” said Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah. “The ARPA rules have changed several times, and Melissa Houston and her team at 929 Strategies will keep up with the changes.”
As mandated by the Legislature, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services will publish a weekly report of the status of all ARPA grant agreements to the Chairs of the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding and will make them available to the public. They will also publish a quarterly report of all expenditures of ARPA funds.
“Under the authority granted by the Legislature, OMES will primarily play the role of administrator in the distribution of ARPA funds,” said Caden Cleveland, the OMES director of legislative and public affairs in an emailed statement. “By this, I mean we will be working with each entity that the Legislature and the governor have decided shall receive ARPA dollars to ensure they have the correct budgetary and legal documentation in place before receiving the dollars. Once correct documentation is in place and ARPA dollars are distributed to these entities, we will continue working with them to make sure the expenditure of the funds are all meeting federal requirements for their use.”
According to Thompson, the previous mismanagement of pandemic relief funding, via the ClassWallet fiasco, has not been a contributing factor to the oversight of this round of pandemic relief money.
ClassWallet was hired by Oklahoma officials in August 2022 to distribute $17.3 million in emergency federal educational funds. The State of Oklahoma later filed a lawsuit against ClassWallet as it failed to ensure proper money management.
During the pandemic, ClassWallet distributed funding using the Stay in School grant, which provided $6,500 in tuition assistance, and the Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, which provided $1,500 in grants to low-income families to buy educational items.
The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch performed a combined investigation of ClassWallet in May 2022. Records show a heavy amount of funding was spent on non-educational items such as TVs, Christmas trees, barbecue grills, smartphones and video game consoles all through the Bridge the Gap program.
Suggestions on how to spend Oklahoma’s ARPA funding were submitted through an online portal. The proposals came from a wide variety of industries, such as water management, workforce development, nonprofits and more.
On March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus bill to help economic recovery and public health after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The act allocated $350 billion in emergency funding to state, local, territorial and tribal governments. State governments and the District of Columbia received $195.3 billion.
Funding was sent out in two separate installments, with the exception of territories which received $4.5 billion in a single installment. Recipients must appropriate the funds by Dec. 31, 2024, and have it spent by Dec. 31, 2026.