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Educators put stimulus to the test, but haven't gotten good answers yet

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2009 - Good Friday turned out to be good news for many public school districts across Missouri because it was the day the state announced that schools would get roughly $140 million in extra Title 1 money for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The bad news will come later for some cash-strapped districts as they slowly realize the stimulus program offers no chance of a quick fix for their budget problems.

The first school official to raise the alarm about this issue in a big way is Norm Ridder, superintendent of schools in Springfield, Mo. Last Monday he fired off a letter to President Barack Obama, saying the hope rising from the stimulus program had been replaced for now by “confusion since we have yet to see any of the dollars promised for saving teachers’ jobs and modernizing our school buildings.”

His views may change as other parts of the stimulus package work their way through the Missouri Legislature. But for now, Ridder is giving voice to concerns of many school officials as they judge what they hear from Washington against what’s happening in their home states. They have heard Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk for weeks about distributing the federal dollars quickly to help lay the groundwork for a new federal requirement that districts take a data-driven approach to improving teacher quality and turning around low-performing schools.

Impatience in States

But there clearly is impatience in states about the slow pace at which the feds and states are getting programs up and running. In his letter to Obama, Ridder mentioned that school districts needed “the cooperation of the Missouri Legislature,” and that “not one penny of investment has been made available” to Springfield through stimulus money.

Gov. Jay Nixon’s budget director, Linda Luebbering, points out that some of these concerns don’t reflect how government, and this program in particular, will work. First, she notes that Missouri has yet to receive any stimulus money. Second, she notes that any education allotments that the state gets cannot be spent until the next fiscal year. Finally, she points out that state lawmakers have to make decisions about how the money will be used.

“We can’t spend the money because we don’t have it yet,” she says, adding that, in any case, none of these dollars could be used to address money woes schools face in this current fiscal year.

Missouri’s Share

Missouri school districts are set to receive roughly $1.3 billion in education stimulus money over the next two years. The bulk of this funding includes $139 million in extra Title 1 assistance, announced Friday, and $921 million in school stabilization funds. The rest of Missouri’s share will be for educating disabled students, education technology, assistance to homeless students and school construction. State officials say they are still awaiting word from Washington about spending and guidelines for most of these other pots of stimulus money. Districts also will have a chance to get extra federal stimulus dollars that will be distributed on a competitive basis.

Decisions about how and where Title 1 dollars will be spent have been relatively easy. It’s doled out through a formula that takes into account the number of poor children a district serves. Many districts are less concerned about this pot of money because it is limited to schools serving poor children. What concerns these districts more is what happens to the rest of the state’s share of stimulus money, including the big pot of stabilization dollars. How Missouri spends this pot is the subject of an ongoing debate in Jefferson City.

The Senate’s Approach

One Senate proposal that’s to be made public on Monday or Tuesday would use $559 million of the state’s stabilization money to underpin Missouri’s school foundation formula of $5.4 billion in K-12 education in the next fiscal year. (The proposal also calls for putting $197 million of the stimulus stabilization money into the state’s proposed higher education budget of $1.3 billion).

The need for stabilization money to plug these holes in Missouri’s education budgets shows the severity of the economic downturn. Last week, Luebbering, the budget director, reported that general revenue collections for March had declined by 0.6 percent compared to a year ago, from $5.43 billion last year to $5.40 billion this year.

That so much of Missouri’s stabilization money will go to plugging holes will mean there might be little left to take care of the other promises of the law’s stabilization component. While Education Secretary Duncan explained that much of the stabilization dollars would be used to offset the economic downturn, he also has said the focus of the money should be on school reform and student achievement.

Some Missouri lawmakers say the stabilization funding is welcome because it allows Missouri to plug holes in its education budget and free up state dollars to meet other needs. The hope is that Missouri’s fiscal picture, and the nation’s, will rebound during the two-year stimulus funding cycle.

All this explains why some school officials in Missouri and across the nation are a little stressed. Though Ridder, the superintendent in Springfield, is the first to go public with these worries, district officials say teachers and others echoed his comments the minute his letter to Obama became public. Meanwhile, superintendents who are part of the American Association of School Administrators have voiced concerns, as Ridder has, that school districts aren’t getting good directions from states about when stimulus money would begin flowing.

Actually, state education officials in Missouri have included a website to alert districts about when to expect funding. In some cases, states have no answers, Leubbering says, because they have yet to receive answers from Washington.

Stress in Districts

That doesn’t ease the stress in school districts. Ridder says districts like his must cope with economic reality of declining revenue and the possibility that Springfield may have to cut more than $4 million from its budget in the next fiscal year.

The district’s community relations director, Marc Maness, says, “Every time we try to find out information, there appears to be not a lot of clear answers about how the money will impact education,” he says. “Fully funding the foundation formula is great, but that wouldn’t address the millions of dollars we’ll have to cut.”

He adds that the superintendent felt his letter would let Obama know the district wanted to do “good things” with stimulus dollars. These include “shovel-ready projects” that would mean “jobs right here in Springfield” to offset the loss of construction work due to the housing slowdown, Ridder said in his letter. He also hopes the money, once it flows, will help the district maintain its teacher quality and its reduction in class sizes. His hope, Ridder told Obama, is that leadership at the state and federal level will help districts in Missouri and elsewhere make sound investments in children, schools, and the economy.

Beyond the fact that this money marks a dramatic increase in federal assistance to education, about the only thing everyone seems sure of is that decisions about Missouri’s share will be made by May 8. That’s the deadline for enacting the state’s budget.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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