Struggling Oklahoma schools are caught in funding limbo
BY ANDREA EGER World Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2012
11/19/12 at 7:21 AM
After being designated among the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools in the state, McKinley Elementary School started the academic year off with a plan to get research-based interventions and three extra hours of help per week for struggling students.
With the first semester nearly over, McKinley is no closer to implementing that plan because the federal funds allocated to pay for it are held up in bureaucratic limbo.
"You give us the grade and you hold us accountable but we can't spend the funds that were allocated for us to provide the services our students need?" McKinley Principal Lynnette Dixon said. "The funds are already there. There should not be a tug of war with the children in the middle."
Schools with the highest percentages of children from low-income families receive federal Title I funds to help ensure that all children meet the state's academic standards on tests administered each spring.
But school districts can't touch a significant portion of those funds that have been set aside to implement interventions until the state has identified the lowest performing "Priority" sites or those with the greatest academic achievement gaps, called "Focus" sites.
Low-performing Title I recipient schools around the state are anxiously awaiting word that officials had expected months ago from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. For Tulsa alone, that cache of set-aside funds totals $3.4 million, or 20 percent of all of its Title I funding.
"That is a lot of intervention resources that is critical to improving our reading scores that we are waiting on," said Chris Johnson, assistant superintendent for accountability at TPS.
Up to 5 percent of the set-aside funds can be spent on bus transportation for students whose parents opt to transfer them out of Priority schools and into ones with higher test scores.
The balance of those dollars plus the remaining 15 percent can be spent on supplemental instructional materials, remedial programs and computer software, additional staffing needs such as reading specialists, professional development and parent involvement efforts.
At McKinley, teachers who had already agreed to stay after school for enrichment activities one day a week without pay signed on for a three-times-a-week tutoring program. It was to have started Oct. 1, but Dixon said she couldn't move forward with it without the funds to pay her faculty for the additional three hours of afterschool work.
"The parents were told we would offer tutoring and the teachers were willing to stay after," she said. "We were also going to purchase curriculum materials for a research-based reading program but we were unable to purchase the materials for that. For the entire school, it is $70,000."
Asked when the final designations of Priority and Focus sites are due to be announced, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said she didn't know.
Communications specialist Tricia Pemberton said schools received preliminary information that they could have based their spending on. She pointed out that the "vast majority" of Title I funds have been available to schools.
"Tulsa could have been spending their set-aside money on school improvement programs all along," she said. "They received their preliminary designations in September. They would have known at that point what their likely designation would be and could have spent money accordingly. If they had a need for remediation, there was no reason for them to wait to fund it."
However, Jill Hendricks, director of federal programs at Tulsa Public Schools, said spending federal money on preliminary information that not only could change but is likely to change is similar to check-kiting.
"We are required to serve schools with high poverty in rank order," Hendricks said. "If we would have spent money on a school that ended up not being on the list, we could have violated federal law by not following the rank order requirement. It's writing a check we can't cash.
"Had we been wrong on several schools, the district would have had to find a way to pick up the costs for the correct schools."
She said each Title I school has its own "wish list" for how to spend its share of set-aside funds, but after the final Priority and Focus school list is announced, individual site budgets will still need state approval.
"We know these schools need help," Hendricks said. "It is so frustrating because this money is earmarked but it is held hostage until after we have a final list (of Priority and Focus sites).
"We are looking at the possibility that it could be January before we can start spending this money. The delay might force us to choose things that we can pay for quickly because there is a limit on how much Title I money we can carry over, and anything we don't spend will go back to the state."
Federal funds set aside for school interventions on a sliding scale
|Percentage of district enrollment of Title I Priority, Targeted Intervention and Focus schools||State recommended percentage of Title I, Part A funds to set aside|
|0-5% of enrollment ||6-20% of funds|
|5.5-10% of enrollment ||8-20% of funds|
|10.5-15% of enrollment || 10-20% of funds|
|15.5-20% of enrollment || 15-20% of funds|
|More than 20% of enrollment ||20% of funds|
Note: Districts that choose to set aside a smaller percentage than recommended are required to justify that decision to the state.
Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education
Original Print Headline: Struggling schools caught in fund limbo
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470