a thousand cuts

After weathering Sandy, Grady HS loses funding in the shuffle

Grady High School students gathered in the classroom that has been used by Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit group that has provided support to the school. The end of a grant program means the services and partnership will end.

A month ago, administrators at William E. Grady Career and Technical High School had no reason to think the school’s after-school and enrichment offerings were at risk.

A year after getting the surprising news that the city would try to close the school, nine months after learning that the closure plan was off, and five months after reopening with a dramatically reduced student body and budget, the school was finally back on firm footing.

Administrators expected a new round of funding for extra services to kick in this fall. Since 2008, the school has offered after-school programs with the support of a state 21st Century Community Learning Center grant secured through a partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a youth and family development agency.

But last week, the school learned that in the next round of the grant, Good Shepherd wouldn’t be working with Grady, and the funding — at least $150,000 a year according to Good Shepherd — would no longer flow. The news came too late for the school to sign on to a different organization’s grant application.

Exactly why the news came as a surprise is not clear. Assistant Principal Jodi Infantolino said Good Shepherd’s on-site employees had told her they planned to stay on, and Principal Geraldine Maione said no one at the organization had communicated otherwise. But officials at Good Shepherd said they always knew they would not be able to work with as many schools in the grant’s next round — with the maximum funding reduced, the group would be able to apply for the grant in partnership with only six schools.

The bottom line is that after Jan. 14, Grady wasn’t part of Good Shepherd’s grant application, and it was too late for Maione to partner instead with the other two groups that had asked her to sign on with them.

Now, the school will have to figure out some other way to pay for the services — which administrators said had helped propel it from a D to a B two years ago — or go without them. It is the latest in a series of losses that began when the school’ federal school improvement funds vanished because of the city’s dispute with the teachers union; continued when enrollment dropped sharply; and compounded when Hurricane Sandy flooded the building last fall.

While Grady has faced a particularly tough series of blows, the episode highlights the challenge of using partnerships to pay for essential school services, something that schools have always done but that Chancellor Dennis Walcott recently urged them to do more often.

“What this is an example of is significant cuts to after-school funding, there not being enough money to go around, and organizations having to make really bad choices,” said Amy Cohen, who oversees government contracts and program development at Good Shepherd Services. “The process is very, very complex, and the rules changed in the middle. And as a result horrible things like this can happen as just an oversight of this miserable system. There’s not enough money and a very complex application process, so organizations and schools get hurt in the mix.”

Even if Grady had been included in Good Shepherd’s grant application, there’s no guarantee that the bid would have been approved.

Grady is just one of many schools across the city that rely on grants to supplement what the school can offer and help students complete enough credits to graduate. City funds for after-school programs are often the first to land on the chopping block when budget cuts are needed, and Mayor Bloomberg last month proposed cutting $10 million in city funding from an after-school initiative he created in 2005. Last year, a last-minute budget deal averted proposed cuts of an even greater magnitude.

“Once again, the mayor’s proposed cuts to after-school and early childhood programs will continue a disappointing trend of shrinking programs for the children in our city who need them most,” President and CEO of the Children’s Aid Society Richard Buery said in a statement last month after the mayor announced the preliminary budget for 2014.

With the grant funding that is still in place through the end of the school year, Good Shepherd Services staff a classroom at Grady where students can unwind, do homework, use computers, and participate in a wide range of classes. The agency also pays for four Grady teachers to teach for-credit classes after the regular school day. Infantolino said students started earning credits more quickly after Good Shepherd moved into the building.

The agency brought arts classes into the career and technical education school for the first time and organized trips to visit colleges in Boston and New York, as well as camping trips and museum visits for students Maione said “have never left their blocks in Brooklyn.”

“The staff has been amazing — young, energetic, and they relate to the kids,” Infantolino said.

“Good Shepherd staff are like parents and older brothers and sisters,” senior Orville Feanny said. “If you’re not in class, they’ll come around and find you…to me, Andre is like a dad. I go to him for whatever advice I need, school or personal.”

Feanny said his favorite class is martial arts, and that his heart is set on attending Northeastern University, which he said he had never heard of until Good Shepherd organized a trip there.

If it weren’t for Good Shepherd programming, Feanny said, “I’d probably just play basketball and handball every day after school when I didn’t have a sports team.”

On the school’s most recent quality report, Grady was rated well-developed, the highest rating, in school culture. “This grant was part and parcel of how we were able to do that,” Maione said.

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”