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Stimulus funds frustrate schools

By BY JULIAN CAVAZOS - JCAVAZOS@VICAD.COM
Dec. 29, 2009 at 6:29 a.m.
Updated Dec. 30, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.


CROSSROADS AWARDS

Crossroads' agencies received approval for $74 million in economic stimulus funds this year, an Advocate analysis of federal records shows.

The $787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, passed by Congress in February, aims to stimulate a U.S. economy reeling in the wake of recession, lawmakers say.

Many in the Crossroads fought for their sliver of the pie.

The federal government approved 67 awards for 37 agencies, including several awards used for area schools.

CALCULATING JOBS

To calculate the 25.5 new jobs created, the Advocate counted a new full-time job as one job and a part-time job as one-half job. School districts provided new job creation estimates.

Editor's note: This is the third in a seven-part series that details federal stimulus funding to the Crossroads. Thursday, the Advocate reports on funding for municipalities.

While district leaders say the $10.1 million injected into the region's schools helps, the so-called federal boost comes with headaches and strings attached.

Some school district superintendents say that with some portions of federal stimulus money received, the state withheld typical yearly funding.

In other cases, school leaders say they had to apply for money they typically receive, and then negotiate how to use it.

The federal money stimulates more than campus life. It fuels frustration, too.

FORCED TO APPLY

Jeff Black is superintendent of the Ganado school district. His district received about $56,000 in federal stimulus funds to use for teacher salaries.

For every $1 awarded to Ganado schools via the stimulus, the state withheld $1 in its typical funding, the superintendent said.

"There's nothing new happening," Black said. "The even bigger story of the whole thing is that it's pretty easy to point to the fact we're becoming a federal school system instead of a state system. The portion of the school budget the federal government is paying has gone up considerably."

It's difficult to track how much money the state withheld for some portions of federal money, and Black's complaint is not shared region-wide. Other snafus arose, however.

Frances Koch, executive director of budget and finance for Victoria schools, explained how the process worked. Before the stimulus program, Victoria schools were to receive $43.9 million in yearly funding.

Under the new federal stimulus formula, the district will receive $39.5 million, but had to apply for another $4.3 million to make up the difference.

Diane Boyett, a Victoria schools spokeswoman, asked Koch: "This is the normal funding we would have received, except it had to be applied for?"

"That is correct," Koch said.

So far, Victoria schools received approval for $2.9 million of the $4.3 million it applied for, according to federal records.

OTHER WORRIES

While no school district applicant will be turned down for money to fill in the gaps, Koch said, districts must negotiate how to spend the stimulus.

The application required to receive the federal money was 25 pages long, required nine staff members and more than 80 hours to prepare, Koch said.

Tracy Young, spokesperson for Joe Straus, the Texas speaker of the House, explained why the state created this process. "That's mainly to keep track of how districts are using the funds," Young said.

For 2010-2011, Texas schools were appropriated $49.2 billion in state money from its All Funds account, a decrease of about $425 million from the year before, Young said.

"General Revenue Fund appropriations decreased by $4.3 billion," she explained. "However, this decrease in funding was offset by appropriations of about $5.9 billion in federal funds, which fill shortfalls in the level of state funding."

Much of the money not spent by the state goes to a "rainy day" fund, which is expected to grow to $9.1 billion by the end of 2011.

Boyett said she worries about future funding to Victoria schools.

"There are rumors that there may be corresponding cuts in the future in some areas, but those are simply rumors," Boyett said. "The state funding issue is a whole other matter. The major concern in that situation is what happens next legislative session when the stimulus funds are not there?"

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Despite the headaches, school district leaders report benefits. Victoria teachers, for example, received a $980 yearly pay raise coupled with a step increase, according to Koch.

"That was a definite plus," Boyett said. "Without the stimulus funding, there were some expenditures that would not have been covered through state funding."

Victoria schools also used $227,840 in stimulus funds to buy, in part, 225 uniforms for Victoria East and Victoria West high schools each.

Other districts report stimulus uses from funding for student development and teacher training to upgrades in classrooms.

The Nursery school district received a $34,931 federal award that afforded it 22 new computers for its new computer lab, a teaching tool it lacked until now. The district also bought interactive Smart Boards and e-clickers to use in classrooms.

"We were able to tie them into technology specifically," Superintendent Suzanne Bell said. "In that we have benefited greatly."

The school district also purchased a new school camera, which students will use to produce their first yearbook.

Edna schools used stimulus funds to create new jobs.

"We hired a math and science coordinator to make sure we're doing the best we can in our instruction in both math and science," said Superintendent Bob Wells.

Edna schools also hired additional special education teachers and aides. For all this, the superintendent said he was grateful for the federal help.

"We're trying to get away from pulling the kids out into a separate class and into a regular classroom," Wells said. "All of that has been incredibly beneficial. This was a real wonderful windfall because it allows us to do things we normally couldn't have afforded to support kids."

Despite reports the stimulus funding benefits schools, a glaring number stands out. From the $10.1 million federal funds devoted to schools, only 25.5 new jobs were created. Thus, critics point to statistics like this and say the federal spending won't boost long-term economic benefits.

The worrisome outlook doesn't end there. Most school districts worry whether federal funding will exist during the next legislative session. If federal funds cease next year, will a shortfall of state funds exist?

"We don't know what the future holds," Bob Moore, superintendent of Victoria schools, said. "It really puts pressure on the Legislature to make sure once federal funds are gone that they look at a continual fund of revenue."

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