Poorest schools return $500,000

Critics howl as federal money meant to help poor pupils goes unspent

Thirty-three of the district's poorest schools last year failed to spend more than $500,000 in federal money given to them to help their struggling students.

According to school district records, Binnsmead Middle School in Southeast Portland left unspent more than $70,000 in federal Title I grant money in the 2001-02 academic year Ñ more than 30 percent of the $236,000 given to the school in Title I money that year.

Seven other schools did not spend federal grant amounts ranging from about $23,000 to $49,000.

The large amounts of unspent grant funds have the district concerned and some of its critics on the offense.

School district officials say the total unspent federal money for all of the eligible district schools Ñ called a carry-over balance Ñ is a small percentage of the total Title I money granted to district schools.

Because other district schools overspent their Title I grant allocations, the total carry-over balance at the end of the 2001-02 school year was about $273,000, or about 3 percent of the $8.6 million in Title I money that the district passed on to its schools last year, according to district records.

'There's always a carry-over, and I don't know a district in the country where that's not the case,' said Kathryn Anderson, the Portland district's Title I coordinator.

It's the excessive amount of carry-over that worries her.

'It concerns me,' Anderson said of the schools that leave large sums untouched. 'And we talk with them and work with them about that.'

Anderson said her office gives principals monthly updates early in the calendar year to apprise them of how they are spending their Title I money.

Among the schools sitting on the largest amounts of money, Madison High School left unspent more than $49,000, or about 28 percent of the total it was awarded. Sunnyside Elementary left almost $23,000, or about one-third of what it was awarded. And Bridger Elementary left more than $43,000, or 84 percent of what it was awarded.

The federal money is specifically devoted to schools serving students from poor families, who often are behind in school achievement. When the schools didn't spend the funding last year, the carry-over money reverted to a school district fund spread over all Title I schools.

Critics, many of whom have long said the district doesn't do enough to help poor and minority students learn at the same level as their middle-class, white peers, said the schools' neglecting to use the money shows how district leaders do not focus on spending money well.

'It's a real serious concern, and a real shame, to not make use of these resources,' said Martin Gonzalez, whose campaign for a seat on the Portland school board is based largely on forcing the district to do more to help poor and minority students.

'I think it's a huge waste,' said Carrie Adams, a Portland parent and longtime activist for poor and minority students. 'We're denying the kids the opportunity to learn. When the resources are there, we ought to be using them.'

Anderson said districts as a whole are 'absolutely forbidden from overspending' their grant money, so 'you try to come as close as you can É (but) you have carry-overs.'

Most money goes to staff

Ric LaTour, an administrator with the Oregon Department of Education, said the federal government requires that school districts spend at least 85 percent of their Title I money. He estimated that the average carry-over among Oregon school districts is about 10 percent. Having a carry-over allows stability for special districtwide programs in the event that Title I money is cut back sharply the following year, LaTour said.

Still, LaTour and Anderson both said individual schools should be questioned when they do not spend 20 percent or more of their Title I money, as is the case with several Portland schools. Fifty-two schools were eligible for the money in the 2001-02 school year.

Among all Portland schools getting Title I funds, about 85 percent of the money goes to staff salaries and benefits, with the rest going to books and supplies, teacher training and miscellaneous needs.

'We begin to give them budget projections É factor out all their salary costs and benefit costs through the end of the year and show them what other expenditures they've made. And then show them the balance,' Anderson said. 'And we update them on that monthly, so they know very, very clearly when they have extra funds.'

Anderson and LaTour said reasons for a school's having a large balance at the end of the year might be that it planned to fill a vacancy during the year but couldn't find the right candidate; it budgeted for special training or work with a contractor that turned out to be unavailable; or it overestimated the costs of materials.

Principals on the spot

Binnsmead Principal John Hinds said he was unaware that so much money awarded to his school was unspent in 2001-02. When asked how it could have occurred, he said, 'Probably because of the inexperience of a first-year principal.' He added that he probably is coming closer to the mark during the current school year.

Attempts to reach the Madison High principal were unsuccessful.

Marilyn Seger, principal of Bridger, said she closely monitors her school's budgets, and a carry-over balance for Bridger of $43,000 Ñ out of the school's $51,900 Title I funding in 2001-02 Ñ 'doesn't reflect anything I've ever seen.'

'That doesn't sound right to me,' said Seger, who added she believes that the majority of the school's Title I funding in 2001-02 went for teachers' salaries.

Gonzalez, who has advocated for minority children as a leader in Portland's Coalition for Latino Education, said he believes that many principals are basically not paying attention and not making use of resources.

'To me, if your school sent back 12,000 bucks, and those 12,000 bucks could be used to hire someone who teaches just reading, and it benefits one child É to me, that's a real waste,' Gonzalez said. 'And the total unspent money matters.

'If money did not matter, they would not be proposing closing schools,' he said, referring to the district estimate that closing Brooklyn and Meek Elementary schools next year would save the district about $300,000 a year.

'That money they're talking about Ñ in terms of a quarter of a million bucks Ñ it does make a difference,' Gonzalez said.

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