SPS receives a number of different federal and state grants to help support disadvantaged students. Whether or not a kid is in need of extra help is often measured by whether or not a kid qualifies for Free/Reduced Lunch (FRL). Free/Reduced Lunch information is generally used to get an idea of how many poor kids are at a school, which matters because academic disadvantages often follow financial ones. So when you see "FRL%" you're pretty much being told about how many poor kids are in the building. Is that over-simplifying? A little, but not a lot.
Three examples funds designed to help poor kids: Title I (federal), LAP (state), and FRL (which I know less about). I'm going to spend the most time on Title, a little on LAP, and virtually none on FRL funds.
The district gets to decide how to allocate Title I money, which is often referred to as "Title." There are other numbers in the Title line-up (II, III, etc.), but I'm not covering that right now. Title I is intended to help supplement at schools with high FRL %. The district decides what the "FRL threshold" is for schools to receive Title status and funding. For 2009-10, SPS raised the threshold to 55% FRL. In 2008-09, it was 40% FRL. Why? I'll get to that in a bit. Above a certain FRL% (I think it's 75%), a school must be designated a Title school. Up to that percentage, though, the district has discretion. The yellow portion of the column is what's allocated to schools.
31% of all Title I money (the green part of the column in the chart) must be held back for the following items: payment of tutoring companies (called SES providers), transportation, professional development and family involvement. A district may choose to spend more than that on any one of those categories, but they are required to "set aside" 31% of Title dollars for those expense categories.The biggest expense is usually tutoring companies. At Title schools, poor students are eligible to receive free tutoring, and the district is obliged to pay the tutoring service, up to 20% of all Title money they get. However, that 20%? It's also a cap. The district does not have to pay a penny more than 20% of total Title funds to tutoring companies.
LAP (Learning Achievement Program)
LAP money is, in many ways, a state version of Title money. However, SPS has generally distributed it to almost every school in the district, based on the number of FRL-eligible students in the building, or based on the number of kids achieving below grade level. Honestly, it's been explained to me both ways. The key difference between LAP and Title? No hold-back requirements. And, as of 2009-10, the district started a policy that schools will receive either Title or LAP, but not both.
So. What made me so snarky when I first tried to post this is that there's a leeeeeetle bit of dissonance between the rationale the district has given for raising the Title threshold to 55% and what it looks like could be happening (note my very non-slanderous use of "could" and "appears." It's cuz I'm trying to be a little more grown-up-ish).
Over the last couple of years, the district has been distributing less and less LAP funds to schools, and spending more and more on... centrally-directed projects (the blue section in both charts). In 2009-10, the district distributed $1.9m of LAP funds to schools (and no, I'm not counting STEM here, kids, but I'm not counting it in the centrally-spent stuff, either), but used $3.2m — 61% of the fund — for centrally-directed projects.
How much of Title went to centrally-directed projects? $3.9 milllllllllion dollars. 27% of all Title money that could have been distributed to schools wasn't.
And the thing is? In this letter, the Superintendent very explicitly states that the "Title threshold" was raised from 40% FRL to 55% FRL because of rising expenses from tutoring companies. She goes on to note that the costs of payments to tutoring companies are "mandatory expenses that the district must cover in our budget." This portion is... true. The district, as discussed, must pay tutoring companies who tutor Free/Reduced Lunch-eligible kids at "Title" schools, up to 20% of total Title funds. But do you remember how there's also a cap on that expense? Somehow, the Superintendent forgot to mention that. Also unmentioned? That the district was holding on to an additional $3.9m which could have been distributed to schools.
So, look. There was a choice involved. Schools with high populations of disadvantaged kids could a) continue to receive funding so that they could provide those kids with additional academic support OR, b) the district could keep Title money to spend on centrally directed super-strategic projects? Hmmm. I didn't see any mention of that decision in the letter.
And that's what brings out the snark in me. If the Superintendent really believes that this is the best option, that super-strategic, extra-aligned projects are The Very Best Course Of Action, why not be honest? Why not say "I made a decision that it was better to cut annual funding to many schools off rather than use my oft-spoken of 'creative solutions' to make strategic projects less expensive." Okay, I might have snarkily loaded that suggested statement just a little. But you get the idea, right?
There is a huge issue of transparency and honesty here. I don't agree with this particular course of action, but I only even learned about it because I am a huge nerrrrrd.
Agree, disagree. Whatevs. In this case, where you stand on the issue is less important than that the district isn't even telling you about it. Disagreement is part of public education — but secrecy shouldn't be. Schools and the community should be able to see what is happening, so that they can advocate for or against it. But you can't even begin to have a reasonable discussion about something that district leaders refuse to tell you about. (also, I get that I sound so sincere just now that it might make you want to puke, but get a barf bag and let's keep trucking)
Just a little thought: if I can name three funds off the top of my head that are being skimmed from (Title! LAP! FRL!), do you think it's possible that there might be a fourth, fifth and sixth fund we don't know about yet? Hmmmm.
So. On a bitchier note, since SPS has not been particularly forthcoming about what, exactly, is being funded with the Super-Strategic Secret Projects Slush Fund, I've compiled an incomplete list of centrally-directed projects funded from Title, LAP or FRL:
1. MAP professional development (LAP carry-over!)
2. STEM planning and implementation (LAP!)
3. Performance Management ($3.1 millllllllion dollars in total, with $2 mil out of Title and another $1.1 mil out of FRL monies!)
4. the “Early Learning Institute” (professional development, Title!)
5. coaches (all of the above!)
6. other super-strategic stuff that I’m sure is “aligned” to the strategic plan, and also aligned to _______________. [I’d appreciate if you would go all Mad Libs in the comments and tell me what else the "other" super-secret strategic stuff might be aligned to. Keep it clean, which means “my ass” is not an acceptable Mad Lib entry for a blog that my mom reads].
Okay. Explaining and lists are over.
And now: the educational etiquette of the... moment.
It is considered polite, when using public money for projects, to inform the public about what you're up to.
I'm pretty sure Emily Post will back me on this.