As wrangling over poverty aid continues, some educators lose their jobs

Months into the school year, educators are still waiting to see how possible errors in calculating yearly federal poverty aid will be resolved.

In the meantime, some schools are at a loss — literally — about what to do. And in at least one case, the confusion has forced layoffs.

Carey Dahncke, director of Christel House Academies, said the south campus had to reduce its budget by $122,000, which meant three staff members lost their jobs.

“Every day that goes by that we don’t have that money, which we know we’re entitled to, that’s another school day we know kids aren’t getting service,” Dahncke said.

An email from the U.S. Department of Education to the Indiana Department of Education that Chalkbeat obtained back in September says the state incorrectly applied provisions of federal law when determining this year’s Title I poverty aid for charter schools.

This year one-third of Indiana charter schools saw large cuts in their share of poverty aid. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s department did not calculate poverty aid for charter schools based on the prior year’s funding as the law requires, federal officials said. In doing so, charter schools got a “Title I allocation that declined by more than 15 percent from their FY 2014 total allocation,” the email said.

Since federal education officials got involved in September, they’ve requested data and information from the state. A statement from Ritz’s education department said the conversations are on-going.

“The Department is continuing to work with the U.S. Department of Education regarding Title I allocations,” the statement said. “This is an ongoing process, so in the meantime we are asking that schools move forward with their planning allocations with the understanding that the allocation could change based on guidance from (U.S. Department of Education).”

Budget shortfalls lead to cuts

The hold-up has meant schools are still operating on budgets that, in many cases, fell short from last year and are intended to serve the neediest students.

Dahncke said schools typically know early on what they’ll get and use that information to make their budget plans. This year’s planning amounts fell short of what many schools expected, which tipped educators off that there might be a problem. Yet they had to budget based on those lower numbers anyway.

“We’re going further and further from the point at which we should’ve had our original allocation, which should’ve been the beginning of the school year to help kids,” Dahncke said. “We’re likely now going to be in the next calendar year.”

Dahncke said the staff members who have been cut are those who work with the school’s highest-need students, such as those receiving special education or learning English as a new language. Federal poverty aid is supposed to go toward supporting those students, so their options for cutbacks were narrowed.

A school can’t cut just any classroom teacher or staff member, for example. Aside from staff, much of the school’s budget goes toward building maintenance and transportation, things that generally stay the same from year to year.

“So much of our costs are fixed,” Dahncke said. “It doesn’t matter how much money we get from Title I, our rent is going to be the same.”

Jeremy Williams, an administrator with Lighthouse Academies Charter Schools in Northwest Indiana, said his schools, too, have been in a funding limbo.

“The Title I decrease, combined with our per-pupil decrease, forced us to use Title I monies differently,” Williams said in an email, “prohibiting us from hiring the level of direct Title I staff we need to help our kids be successful. It has hurt.”

As the year progresses, Dahncke said, those students who need the most help go without, but tests are still coming in the spring regardless.

“The kids are still going to take the test, whether it takes 10 days or 10 months (to fix the funding),” Dahncke said. “That’s going to have a big impact on those students. I’m eager to get the money so we can hire the teachers to teach the students.”

Waiting for a resolution

Before any action can be taken, there needs to be some data analysis, said Michelle McKeown, director of the Indiana Charter School Board.

McKeown said over the course of several phone calls, the U.S. Department of Education has asked the Indiana Department of Education for data on poverty funding calculations going back to 2010, and the federal officials said won’t make any kind of judgement until that has been received and analyzed. That data was sent in mid-October.

“(They’re trying) to figure out exactly what the overall picture is in terms of over payment or underpayment before they would potentially order corrective action or require a re-allocation,” McKeown said.

Ritz’s spokeswoman, Samantha Hart, said another call took place on Tuesday.

“The Department has participated in several calls with (the U.S. Department of Education) regarding Title I calculations, including one that took place today,” Hart said in an email Tuesday. “We did provide 2010 allocations to (the U.S. Department of Education) as requested last month, and we have been working through those calculations with them.”

McKeown said she thinks the error could be related to the data sources the state used to determine which kids qualify for poverty aid. Mistakes happen, she said, but this kind of instability in funding isn’t good for any schools — charter, traditional or otherwise.

“It’s really just kind of a big mess that’s unfortunate for everyone,” she said. “And I think everyone would like to see it resolved and cleaned up.”