Published Online: January 25, 2010

11 Wis. School Districts Reject Stimulus Money

Eleven Wisconsin school districts want nothing to do with a highly touted federal grant program that could direct thousands of dollars to their classrooms.

The districts were the only ones out of 425 that refused to take part in the state's application to receive money under the nearly $4.5 billion Race to the Top grant program.

That means if Wisconsin is awarded the $254 million it seeks, the 11 districts won't get a cut, and the money they would have gotten will go to the remaining schools.

That's just fine with Mary Dean, administrator of the Maple Dale-Indian Hills School District just north of Milwaukee. She said the requirements under the state's Race to the Top application were too onerous for her 500-student district to comply with, so instead of giving itself the option of declining to take part later, it decided not to participate at all.

"We really had too many questions, too many unknowns," she said. "We thought the costs would outweigh the benefits."

Similar reasons were given by other superintendents who didn't sign the agreement submitted to the federal government last week: the amount of money available wasn't worth the potential hassle and difficulty required to implement the required reforms. Superintendents said they also feared a loss of local control.

Race to the Top has been touted by the White House, Gov. Jim Doyle and state superintendent Tony Evers as a unique opportunity for schools and states to enact sweeping reforms and to do so using millions of dollars in federal money.

The program was designed to provide incentives to states to improve student achievement, narrow achievement gaps and increase graduation rates.

The first awards were set to be made in April with a second round announced in November.

Schools that wanted grant money had to agree to certain reforms, including starting teacher and principal mentoring programs, becoming part of a statewide data collection system, and developing new teacher and principal evaluation systems.

Additional requirements were put upon the state's six largest districts — Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Kenosha, Green Bay and Beloit — which also stand to get a larger slice of the grant money. All of those districts agreed to make the changes.

The state's application, which hinged on broad support from school districts, said it could meet the goals of Race to the Top because it had so much participation.

Wisconsin districts are eager and ready to take the four reform areas to the next level and continue the momentum that has been started over the last several years," the application said.

While nearly all of the state's districts signed on to the application, those in charge of schools that did not said they suspect more will drop out if Wisconsin is awarded the grant. If Wisconsin is awarded any money, schools have up to 90 days to decide whether to take it and make the reforms required under the state's application.

"I'm going to surmise that many districts totally agree with me, but the safer route, the more political position, is to sign on with the option of opting out," Dean said.

Lois Cuff, administrator of the 1,600-student Freedom Area School District near Appleton, agreed with Dean that more schools will drop out later. She decided, after speaking with her school board and labor union, not to sign on at this point because the cost of enacting the reforms would be more than the $95,000 the district stood to be awarded.

"I chose maybe to take the high road right away," she said.

Much of what the state is asking schools to implement could be mandated by the federal government in coming years, so it makes sense for districts to get to work on the changes now and possibly receive federal money to help, said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. Turner said he strongly urged all schools to participate.

The extra work needed by some districts to comply with the state's application requirements is worth it in order to reduce the achievement gap and increase graduation rates, said Patrick Gasper, spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction.

That said, Gasper said the department fully expects some schools ultimately not to participate based on how much money they stand to receive.

The $77,000 that the 725-student Montello School District in south central Wisconsin could get wouldn't be enough to pay for starting the new mentoring programs required, said administrator Jeff Holmes.

Holmes said Monday that he hasn't gotten any negative feedback for opting out.

"Not for $77,000 over four years, we're not stressing too much over that," Holmes said.

The 10,600-student Eau Claire School District was the largest district that didn't join the application, passing up the chance to receive nearly $1 million. Superintendent Ron Heilmann said the state's requirements to participate didn't mesh with the goals of the district.

However, Eau Claire may be interested in a new proposed round of funding that could send money directly to districts, instead of funneling it through the state, Heilmann said.

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