Nobody turns down federal funds -- or do they? Call it Yankee independence, but three Connecticut superintendents, new to the Title I list, decided the costs and mandates associated with accepting the money outweighed the benefits. Included: A discussion of why districts might opt out of Title I money.
School districts rejecting federal money during a recession would appear as likely as students refusing to take a summer vacation.
That's exactly what three school superintendents in Connecticut did in school year 2003-2004, however, when told they qualified for Title I funds. Citing concerns about the costs and federal regulations that accompany the funds, all three said "No, thanks!"
And they said it even though they knew they still would have to meet other requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, including providing annual student testing, and demonstrating school accountability and adequate yearly progress.
NOT A GOOD MATCH
Title I funding usually is awarded to low-performing, high poverty schools. In two of the districts -- Cheshire and Somers -- wariness about the reporting requirements and perceptions that the awards were due to statistical glitches, prompted the school boards to vote against accepting the money.
The superintendents suspect they only qualified for the grants in 2003-2004 because inmates in local state prisons were included in the towns' populations during the last census. "If you include [the inmates], we appear more diverse, poorer, and younger," said Dr. Thomas Jefferson, superintendent of the Somers School District. According to Dr. David Cressy, former superintendent in Cheshire, that town had not received Title I money in ten years.
"We contacted the state department of education, because we couldn't see how Cheshire's demographics fit in with Title I," Cressy said. "We have no significant minority population and 3 percent or fewer of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch." Both superintendents described their districts as "high-performing," with largely upper middle class populations.
"We knew the money had lots of strings attached to it and lots of administrative costs," said Dr. Cressy. Cheshire, which qualified for a $79,600 Title 1 grant, estimated it would have to spend $30,000 to administer the grant. Somers, which would have received $43,000, estimated administrative costs of $15,000. Cheshire's current budget is $50 million; Somers is $15 million.
"We're new to Title I and we didn't have as much time as we needed to familiarize ourselves with the extensive paperwork," said Dr. Jefferson. "But we were aware of the requirements if we accepted the money. The No Child Left Behind Act heavily influenced our decision not to take it."
Under No Child Left Behind, Title I schools are required to:
In addition, the districts were notified of the grants in June, after their budgets had been finalized; accepting the money would have caused administrative problems.
MORE MINUSES THAN PLUSES
Cheshire sought advice from the Connecticut Department of Education about the ramifications of returning the money. In September 2003, state officials told Cheshire administrators that they had not yet received a response from the U.S. Department of Education.
"They wrote to us and asked if they could send the money back," said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Department of Education. "The U.S. Department of Education was unable to provide an answer. Without a decision from the federal government, the state department of education's view was that the towns could send back the money."
Elaine Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, told Education World at the time that the department was researching the issue, and was uncertain of the ramifications if a district did not accept the funding. "Title I is tied to other federal dollars, so we are looking at the implications if they opt out of it," she said. "We hope the states and districts realize this [Title I money] is important and will work with us to use it for the kids who need it."
A FINAL DECISION
After the response from the state department of education, Cressy briefed the board of education and recommended the district reject the funding, which the board did by a unanimous vote. "I didn't think accepting the money was in the best interests of the district," he said. "And quite frankly, I'm not a big fan of No Child Left Behind."
Although local newspaper headlines sounded as though they were heralding a public relations disaster by announcing that the school district was rejecting almost $80,000, Cressy noted that the public largely supported the decision, after they understood the reasoning behind it.
"I spent a fair amount of time preparing the board [of education,]" Cressy told Education World. "It is hard to turn down money during a recession. But local political leaders supported it, and public comment has been quite positive."
"I thought the superintendent had a very cogent argument," added Dr. Richard Lau, president of the school board. "There was a lot of cost and employee time required for no benefit. The follow-up seemed onerous. Fortunately, our district is a high-performing district. No one in the community questioned the issue."
Somers' board also voted unanimously to reject the funding. "Somers traditionally has been cautious about grant programs," according to Jefferson. The district does not even participate in the federal free and reduced lunch program, because it did not want to be subject to the accompanying regulations. Somers runs its own free and reduced lunch program, at a profit, ensuring that no children go hungry, he said.
Cressy and Jefferson added that all children who need remedial services are getting them. "We do have very strong remediation standards," Cressy said. "We have a high percentage of students above the proficiency level."
WEIGHING THE COSTS
Money more than mandates prompted the small district of Marlborough to turn down its $8,000 Title I grant, superintendent Joseph Reardon said.
"This had nothing to do with No Child Left Behind. If they want little schools to get involved [with Title I], they need to up the ante," Reardon told Education World. Marlborough is a one-school district, with a K-6 school serving 650 children. After sixth grade, students attend a regional school.
"We've never been a Title I school," Reardon continued. "We would have had to spend $10,000 to $15,000 to administer the grant. And it's not guaranteed from year to year."
The school likely qualified for Title I money because of some foster home placements in the area, and those placements changed, he said.
No children are being deprived of services, Reardon added. The school has three remedial reading teachers, one remedial mathematics teacher, and 23 paraprofessionals. Kindergarten through third grade classes have 18 or fewer pupils. "This money would have done nothing but cause an administrative situation. For us, it just didn't make sense."
While realizing that many superintendents do not have the flexibility to decline federal Title I dollars, both Cressy and Jefferson said they think revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act could make accepting federal funding more appealing.
"I think the concept of No Child Left Behind -- that every child should have the best education possible and move forward in the world -- is appropriate," said Cressy. "But the details of how it is administered need to be worked out; they need to be easier for districts to manage."