U.S. Department of Education officials have urged states and districts to show "courage" in using stimulus funds to hire personnel and alleviate the impact of hundreds of thousands of predicted staff layoffs in the 2010-11 school year.
The stance is decidedly less cautious than the tone Education Department (ED) officials struck when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was unveiled last year. At that time, officials warned states and districts to make strategic investments to avoid a "funding cliff" when ARRA funds dry up in 2011. There were also admonitions to use Title I ARRA funds in a way that did not supplant state and local efforts.
Those concerns haven't gone away. But with anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 educator jobs projected to be lost due to budget shortfalls, ED has begun to tweak its message.
"When this ARRA money came out last year to address the economic crisis, I think most of us were at least hopeful that the economy would have turned around a little more than it has," said Maura Policelli, ED's senior advisor for external affairs, during a June webinar entitled "Strategic Use of Title I and IDEA: How to Maximize ARRA, FY09 & FY10 Funds." "But it hasn't, and we're hearing more and more about layoffs."
While many districts have invested in one-time expenditures like equipment and technology to avoid the funding cliff, Policelli urged listeners "to use ARRA funds to support primarily the staffing needs for your Title I and IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] programs."
"We really hope that you will do your best to see how these funds can help alleviate layoffs and the budget crises that your districts or states are facing," she said. "And that does require some courage because it does involve the possible risk of investing in staff that you may not be able to retain in the 2011-12 school year." Policelli offered some examples of appropriate strategies for districts interested in hiring staff without running afoul of supplanting rules, which require federal funds to supplement, not supplant, activities previously funded with state or local resources.
Among the suggestions she offered:
Using Title I ARRA funds to supplement school turnaround efforts under the School Improvement Grant program by hiring teachers otherwise in jeopardy of being laid off. Des Moines, Chicago and Nashville are already using some of their Title I ARRA funds for this purpose.
Putting more staff and intense services in the highest-need Title I schools — another reform priority for the department
Distributing Title I funds to additional eligible schools in a district.
The webinar featured brief presentations from officials in District 300 in Carpentersville, Ill., and the Oregon City Schools in Ohio, who have made innovative uses of their Title I and IDEA ARRA funds to invest in staffing needs.
Illinois allows for extended-day kindergarten, with classes in the morning and afternoon, but districts that go this route have to make it through one year without state funding to allow use of federal funds without incurring a supplanting problem. This proved to be a significant burden for District 300, a large poor district that spends under the state average per child.
"ARRA funds gave us a perfect opportunity to start an extended-day program for our title schools and to expect some funding long term," said Cheryl Crates, the district's chief financial officer. "But the startup costs are always the problem."
District 300 added four classrooms to each of its four Title I schools, and each of those provided two to three sections of additional extended-day services. These students already attended a regular halftime kindergarten program, but receive intensive interventions in the extended-day program.
Addressing the supplanting issue, Policelli described District 300's program as an example of a program "that did not exist before that was launched with Title I ARRA funding."
Ohio's Oregon City Schools used a slightly different approach. The district was in its eighth year of a multitiered behavioral intervention and supports program. Verne Ferguson, the district's IDEA director, said the confluence of ARRA and a "disaster" in local funding led them to rethink the program's mission.
"We rewrote job descriptions or wrote a job description that really focused on functional assessment, behavior support planning and hired from an existing counseling pool," Ferguson said. Both the District 300 and Oregon City Schools report early signs of success with their ARRA efforts.
'You Will Be Fired'
While ED officials said they understood the reason many districts were investing in equipment and technology, they expressed little tolerance for those who had yet to make significant use of their ARRA funds. When a caller asked, "What happens to unspent ARRA money after 2011," Policelli shot back: "You will be fired."
"You will literally be fired, whoever you are," she said. "You must spend this money. If your school district or state is not in a budget crisis, then that is excellent news for you. Most of you are, and we're trying to help you make sure you maximize those dollars in the best way possible. They simply must be used. They were passed by Congress during an economic crisis, and it is your obligation as stewards of taxpayer dollars to spend it wisely, appropriately and in any way possible to help defray the budget crunch a lot of you are facing."
Paul "Sandy" Brown, an ED budget specialist, clarified that funds need to obligated, but not necessarily paid out, by Sept. 30, 2011. — Andrew Brownstein
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