Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Metro schools miss out on federal funds

Money held over concerns about use By JAIME SARRIO • Staff Writer • September 3, 2008 Metro schools went without millions in federal grants last school year because of a misfire during the application process that eventually led to a shakeup of top-ranked administrators. The school district, which is now under partial state control for failing to meet performance benchmarks, was not awarded the money on time because of concerns over how the $2.7 million grant would be spent. At same the time, the district was trying to get permission to spend an additional $800,000 being withheld for similar concerns. As a result, some of the district's lowest performing schools went a full year without additional money for resources to meet state testing benchmarks. Some are still waiting for money in hopes they can use it this school year. Teachers at Maplewood High are waiting on additional training, students are waiting on books to prepare for the ACT college entrance exam and administrators are waiting on funds to promote parent involvement, said Principal Julie Williams. "It's quite a bit of money," she said. "We have a lot of schools in trouble and will continue to be if they keep snatching the money back and forth." Schools and districts are eligible for additional federal money, depending on their demographics and test scores. The money is allocated by the federal government and then distributed to local districts by the state. Trouble in Metro schools' federal grants office began during the 2006-07 school year. The district ended the year with an additional $800,000 because an after-school tutoring program, which was successful at the elementary level, flopped when expanded into middle and high schools. Students didn't take advantage of it, and the money wasn't spent. Instead of repossessing the money, the state chose to let Metro find another use for the funds. But state officials weren't satisfied with the district's choice, a new high-tech education program Metro wasn't even sure it had the computers to support. The state approved a portion of the grant, but it would be a full year before the remainder of the money was spent. During the same period, the district applied for another pot of money to use during the 2007-08 school year. That application, for $2.7 million, was denied because the district wanted to again use much of the money for after-school programs in middle and high school. A small part of the money was eventually approved to pay for school staff. State makes change When the state gained control of the district's finances and staffing in August 2007, the federal program's office was the first to receive a face lift. State leaders promoted Kecia Ray from within the district's federal programs department to assistant superintendent. "This was a symptom of a larger problem they had, and it wasn't just that office. It was the whole central district and how that office interacted with other offices," said Julie McCargar, head of federal programs for the Tennessee Department of Education. "We're much more comfortable with the decision making at the district (now)." This school year, Metro is eligible for $5.4 million in federal grants: $3.3 million in new federal money and $2.1 million left over from last year. This is on top of a $620.7 million operational budget and $62 million in miscellaneous grants the district is expecting to receive. "Considering the fact that some of these schools made adequate yearly progress without the total access to all the resources that were allocated at the district is pretty good," McCargar said. "What that also means is that with additional resources, the schools could make dramatic improvement, and we're hopeful it is going to happen." District officials said they created a grant coordinator position to help with the process and acknowledged that they're taking a different approach to doling out dollars. "We weren't always looking at the best way to serve schools and be proactive," said spokeswoman Olivia Brown. "There were needs to do things in a different way, not only to meet the needs of schools, but to make sure all the reports were done correctly," Brown said. Gina Perez, a parent at H.G. Hill Middle, which is a high-need school, said she was surprised to find out about the delay in funding, but she hopes the district will make good use of the funds when they finally arrived. "I hope if they pump money into the system, they pump it into something different," she said.

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