All but two Marion County districts, excluding Indianapolis Public Schools, saw a cut in federal poverty aid this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer Indianapolis kids are living in poverty.

Rather, for some districts it might simply reflect a bit of a paperwork problem: If fewer Indianapolis adults completed annual Census surveys used to determine how many families qualify for aid and other services, it might explain why some schools got less money.

Federal poverty aid to schools, often referred to by the section of the Congressional act that created it, Title I, flows to school districts every year through a decades-old federal law now called No Child Left Behind. That money is supposed to help poor families, so it would stand to reason that the school districts with the lowest median family income would qualify for the most federal aid.

But that’s not what happened this year.

Instead, federal poverty aid went up for schools in Franklin Township, the wealthiest school district in Marion County with a median family income above $40,000, but went down in nearly every other school district, including Warren Township, which borders Franklin but has a median family income roughly $10,000 less.

When school districts talk about poverty, they often use the percent of students who come from families that qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch programs as a way of comparing one district to another. To qualify, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually.

But federal poverty aid is actually not based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, said Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, an assistant superintendent in Warren Township who also sits on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Federal poverty aid actually depends on many factors, but the biggest is the number of households within a district that are counted by the U.S. Census as below the federal poverty level. That number is based on surveys sent to homes.

The problem is not all families return the surveys. That can skew the district’s poverty percentage if not enough poor families report their income, and there is not much the school district can do about it. Census updates are done every year in between the big census counts each decade.

It’s critical for school districts that families fill out Census surveys, Kwiatkowski said.

“In Warren, something we have to battle is making people understand the importance of them filling out all of that information,” she said.

Less aid means tough cuts

The U.S. Department of Education uses a combination of the American Community Survey, federal income tax returns, food stamp data, social security information, Bureau of Economic analysis surveys and the most recent population estimates to determine how much aid each district should receive.

The department also tried to count the number of neglected children, children in foster homes and those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal aid (food stamps), but those kids only account for about four percent of the total count of formula children.

In most states, including Indiana, a single person is considered to be below the poverty level if they make less than $11,770 a year. For each additional household member, that number goes up by $4,160. So a family of four, for example, must report that they make less than $24,250 a year to be considered a poverty-level household. That is a much lower threshold than what counts as “poor” under the free and reduced-price lunch program.

Although it’s common for the amount of poverty aid given to school districts to fluctuate, that inconsistency can be a problem when districts are surprised by big swings.

Warren Township, for example, received $3.4 million this year, which is about $362,000 less than the district received last year, or about a 9.5 percent decrease. The big drop has forced tough choices.

For example, the district announced this summer a cut in the number of teaching assistant jobs. Those salaries had been paid using federal aid. Those assistants are especially important in the lowest-performing schools, where they work one-on-one with struggling students to help them keep up, or catch up, to their peers.

The district also reduced the amount of after-school tutoring it offers at every school, Kwiatkowski said. Those programs are costly in part because of late busing to take kids home. In another example, a new literacy program designed to help 5th and 6th grade students who struggle in reading and writing wasn’t purchased because the district couldn’t afford it for those grade levels.

Warren is lucky, however, to have a federal Race to the Top grant to help fill in some of the holes, especially when it comes to personalized learning and technology.

Making more money count

Beech Grove City Schools is the other Marion County district besides Franklin Township that is getting an increase in poverty aid this year

Superintendent Paul Kaiser said it is not surprising. Poverty is on the rise in Beech Grove.

“We did not do anything out of the ordinary,” Kaiser said. “Over half of the homes in Beech Grove are rental properties now. We don’t have that stability we used to have of people growing up in Beech Grove and passing on their houses to relatives.”

But even though Beech Grove’s funding increased, the district still received much less than most Marion County districts at a little more than $714,000, up from last year’s $678,000. By comparison, much larger and poorer Indianapolis Public Schools received nearly $29 million.

Kaiser said the district does its best to alert families about completing Census surveys so that Beech Grove is accurately represented year to year.

“It’s important that we get that information out to our parents and alert them that it will not only help them in their personal lives from a financial standpoint, it helps the schools as well,” he said.

Beech Grove used the extra funding this year to hire two new teaching assistants.

“We obviously can’t hire another teacher for $36,000,” Kaiser said. “But we appreciate the funding. I believe it’s one of the reasons our test scores have been rock solid and part of the reason we’re an A school district.”

He was surprised, however, that Franklin Township received the biggest increase in poverty aid this year. Only 38 percent of students in Franklin Township receive free or reduced-price meals. But the district received a more than $100,000 increase in aid this year.

“There’s a huge difference in demographics,” Kaiser said. “I don’t know what happened there.”

Kwiatkowski is certain it comes back to Census surveys.

“In Franklin, they must have had a lot more people fill it out,” she said.