February 2010 Up Front

Stimulus slow to aid school construction

As an unprecedented federal infusion of cash moved into schools last year, it looked like districts finally might have a way to repair and refurbish crumbling, half-century-old facilities. But many districts are finding that just because money is available, it’s not necessarily easy to access.

Case in point: North Carolina officials said the stimulus provision that allowed for interest-free qualified school construction bonds could create as many as 11,000 jobs in the state. But, according to the Bloomberg News Service, only $2.3 billion of the $11 billion in funds available across the United States had been sold as of late December.

As Judy Marks, an occasional author for ASBJ and the associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, told ProPublica.org: “States are missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Marks said last fall that districts should take advantage of any opportunities to repair and upgrade schools, noting that the cost of construction materials and labor was lower than it had been in years, and contractors were hungry for work because of the decline in housing starts and other building projects.

Originally touted as one of the central pieces of the education stimulus package, school construction took a back seat to other, more pressing needs as Congress debated the provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) last year. Much of the $100 billion in education funds provided by the ARRA has been used to cover shortfalls in district operating budgets, but it still hasn’t prevented widespread layoffs in some of the hardest-hit states, such as California and Michigan. In the end, the stimulus package did include $22 billion over two years for qualified school construction bonds.

The slowdown in accessing construction funds has been caused by a combination of factors, officials say. One problem is that districts are having trouble finding banks to purchase the available bonds. In North Carolina and other states, local municipalities must issue bonds. If a county has a low credit rating, or if the amount of money is not significant enough, lenders don’t pay them any attention, in part because they can’t make enough return on their investment.

Tax credits are the primary financial incentive for the lenders, according to the ProPublica article. However, banks without any profits or tax liability cannot use the credits or sell them to third parties.

There is some movement, however, on the federal level to improve the situation. In mid-December, the House approved a $23 billion “education jobs fund” that includes an additional $4.1 billion for construction bond funds. (The money, somewhat ironically in this case, will come from the Troubled Asset Relief Program that was created to help out the banking industry.)

As part of the House legislation, which was scheduled to be taken up by the Senate this month, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheredge added a provision that would allow the states and local municipalities to have payments equal to the tax credit sent directly to them. If the measure passes and is signed into law, observers predict that this could free up money for school construction sooner.

In some cases, it won’t be a moment too soon. But in the case of the Weldon City School District in North Carolina, it’s a little too late.

Elie Bracy, the district’s superintendent, told ProPublica that Weldon City plans to use part of the $894,000 in construction funding they hope to receive to completely replace the science laboratories at its science and technology high school. Students now have to conduct their experiments virtually, instead of live in the classroom on Bunsen burners, because gas pipes have rusted.

“As far as any hands-on experiments, we can’t do it,” Bracy said.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

For more information

For more information on how and where to get funding for your school building projects, go to the “Webinar and Multimedia” section of ASBJ.com and download the webinar “Facilities and Construction Money: Where to Find It.”

The webinar, sponsored by ASBJ and the Association of School Business Officials International, featured a diverse range of speakers that included Sue Robinson, president of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International; Judy Marks of the National Clearinghouse on Educational Facilities; Rachel Gutter of the U.S. Green Building Council; and John Gayetsky and Kathy Prosser, the leaders of the Association of School Business Officials International’s Indoor Environmental Quality Advisory Group.

Reauthorizing ESEA -- What Can It Mean?
By Michael A. Resnick

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which Congress is expected to undertake this year, will spark major attention on fundamental policy questions regarding the direction of public education and the role of the federal government.

Clearly, the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability system needs to be scrapped, as it relies too much on one test, on one test day, and on a one-size-fits-all method of measuring student achievement and determining success and failure. Another basic flaw is that it imposes punishment as the sole incentive for school improvement.

We are encouraged that, in developing alternatives, the U.S. Department of Education is open to more educationally effective strategies such as using multiple indicators of achievement, using positive incentives and rewards to assist low-achieving schools, and giving these schools time to progress -- rather than the current approach that throws these schools more deeply into sanctions every year in which they don’t reach an ever-rising performance bar.

However, the Department of Education’s openness to these positive changes doesn’t mean that, if a low-achieving school remains low-performing for several years, especially after receiving federal incentives to improve, that it won’t impose sanctions. The question will be how far the federal level will go in specifying the scope of what those schools must do. What the Department of Education’s ultimate accountability proposal will look like remains to be seen.

Last year, Congress gave the Department of Education broad authority to induce specific education reform measures through historic funding in the economic stimulus program, including its Race to the Top initiative (RTTT). Building on those efforts, the span of the department’s major reauthorization proposal will likely reach beyond major changes in setting the parameters for school accountability, which itself was established as a federal function only eight years ago. It appears that the department will want to play a much larger role in determining how education is provided, by incorporating key features of RTTT in the more broadly based and longer-term ESEA reauthorization.

In awarding RTTT grants, the Department of Education is focusing on a select number of states with promising school reform plans. Those plans include adopting standards and assessments at college- and career-ready levels and ensuring effective teachers and principals. They also include managing longitudinal data systems to determine whether students and teachers are operating at the level of the standards and turning around low-performing schools.

In doing so, RTTT is replete with strategies and encouragement for school districts to engage in a wide range of activities, including an increased emphasis on STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and math), the use of technology in student learning, pre-K education, teacher performance incentives, and specific activities for turning around low-performing schools, to name a few. To the extent that RTTT concepts are replicated into the ESEA reauthorization, a number of operational challenges for school districts will surface and will have to be accommodated.

For example, many school districts will need financial and technical assistance to align the professional development of teachers, curriculum, and course materials needed to meet the standards that the department is calling for, along with support for implementing the best classroom practices.

While the schools have the responsibility to successfully educate all of our nation’s schoolchildren, the results -- and therefore the department’s reauthorization proposal -- would be significantly strengthened if adequate attention were given to the important role of other agencies to address basic unmet student needs. We know that, when students lack health, nutritional, and other support, their academic success is too often seriously impeded.

Services need to be better coordinated among federal agencies, and where necessary funded by them, to ensure better and more efficient delivery of services by city, county, and state agencies in coordination with the schools.

Considering the tight financial conditions that most states and many school districts are experiencing, as well as the uncertainty as to what their potential revenue-raising capacity will be several years from now, how well federal funding matches the wide scope of the department’s likely ESEA proposal will be critical. NCLB demonstrated the unfortunate outcome when the federal government’s enthusiasm for a concept (despite its flaws) far exceeds the concomitant commitment to adequately fund it.

Ultimately, the reauthorizations will be in the hands of Congress to design, enact, and fund. Given the likely far-reaching scope of the legislation and that, once enacted, it may be another seven or eight years before ESEA is reauthorized again, it is critical that local school boards bring the local perspective to the table so that, this time, the federal level gets it right.

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director for advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

District sued over ‘sexting’ suicide
The family of an 18-year-old girl who committed suicide has filed suit against the Sycamore, Ohio, school district, saying that officials did not attempt to stop students at her high school from sending nude pictures of her via cell phone, a form of “sexting.” Jessica Logan killed herself in summer 2009 after nude photos she had taken with her cell phone on a spring break trip and e-mailed to her boyfriend were sent to other classmates and peers at other schools. The classmates harassed her and began calling her at home, and the school resource officer told her there was nothing he could do, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The family’s lawyer told the Enquirer that the primary goal was “to ensure school officials follow policies that are intended to protect students from harassment and bullying.”

LSBA says Race to the Top not worth the risk for school boards
The Louisiana School Boards Association says the federal Race to the Top fund, part of the economic stimulus package that provides competitive grants to states and districts, is not in the best interest of school districts in the long run. The LSBA’s 17-member board of directors voted unanimously in mid-December to declare that the research behind the Race to the Top requirements is “insufficient to compensate for the long-term fiscal risk to public school systems,” according to an LSBA statement. Executive Director Nolton Senegal Sr. said that the key consideration was the requirement that school boards would have to continue to pay for the programs once the four-year federal grant expired. Given that state and federal budgets would be unlikely to produce new appropriations, the LSBA board members were concerned that school boards would have to ask for tax increases. “As always, local school boards must continue to make decisions on the costs, the consequences, and the benefits to students,” Senegal said.

Ohio ditches law requiring school safety inspections
The Ohio legislature quietly repealed a law requiring stringent school safety inspections as part of its budget in late 2009, but some school officials say they will continue to conduct the inspections. The 2005 law required that local health departments inspect the state’s schools each year for health and safety dangers. A Republican legislator who initially had voted for the law sponsored its repeal because he said schools complained about the bureaucratic and detailed rules and unfunded costs associated with compliance. The law was named “Jarod’s Law” in memory of a 6-year-old who was killed when a cafeteria table fell and crushed him in 2003. The death made national headlines and the type of cafeteria table, which had been recalled by its manufacturer, was found to be used in hundreds of schools across the country.

Florida district’s budget derailed by unemployment insurance costs
The Pasco County, Fla., school district got an unexpectedly large bill for its unemployment insurance rates last fall, paying $250,000 in the first quarter of fiscal year 2010. The tab for the entire 2009 fiscal year was only $100,000. The district is the county’s largest employer, and as a result, many residents have worked for the district. When other employers cut back, the district is on the hook if those employers can’t pay, Superintendent Heather Fiorentino told the St. Petersburg Times. The district planned to lobby the Florida legislature this spring to change the law and reduce the liability of former employers, she said.

ED scrutinizes teacher absentee rates
The U.S. Department of Education will collect data on teacher absentee rates as part of its decision-making on federal aid for low-performing schools, particularly on stimulus grants and Title I funds. The announcement this fall upset some teachers, particularly those with perfect attendance, but also was applauded by researchers, who have found that teachers who are repeatedly absent can hinder their students’ learning. Raegan Miller, associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that teachers are absent, on average, nine to 10 days a school year, and over time that can disrupt student learning. In particular, his research showed that many teachers tended to have discretionary absences on Mondays. Friday, and days before or after a holiday.

New schools in Texas sit vacant
Three school districts in Texas have halted construction on new buildings or have delayed opening completed buildings because they do not have the money to operate those schools. The Conroe and Cypress-Fairbanks districts near Houston have halted or slowed construction on a total of 15 new schools because of budget shortfalls and declining revenues, particularly property tax collections, and economic forecasts show no relief in sight, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Crowley school district in North Texas has two completed school buildings that it has not yet opened because of operating costs, according to the Chronicle.

Bake sales across Michigan raise education funds
Frustrated parents and school activists took the age-old school fundraiser, a bake sale, to new heights last fall. The Michigan Parent Teacher Student Association held bake sales in public venues -- the steps of the state capital, grocery stores, post offices, and other arenas -- not just to raise a few dollars but also to bring the causes for education funding to the public and lawmakers. The state legislature cut about $300 per student for the 2009-10 school year, and more cuts could be imminent. In December, the Lansing State Journal reported that a midyear budget crisis meant that 10 out of 12 of mid-Michigan’s largest school districts will use money from their fund balance accounts to maintain most programs through the end of the year. Some of the cuts already made by school boards across the state included transportation, athletics, teacher salaries, and the shuttering of buildings, according to the Journal.

Ariz. district’s catering service helps budget
The Queen Creek, Ariz., school district is supplementing its budget and lowering its food costs by providing catering services and a la carte items to school staff and parents. The district’s food and nutrition services department offers breakfast, sandwich, and cookie trays that are ideal for meetings, and also offer items such as home-baked breads and salsa for staff and parents to purchase at below-retail prices, according to the East Valley Tribune. The service not only helps parents and staff to afford more nutritious items at a lower price, but it also helps the district save money by buying items in bulk for a reduced cost.

Oregon may change law banning teachers’ religious attire
Oregon’s state House speaker plans to introduce legislation this year to end a ban on religious clothing for public school teachers. A law passed in 1923, sponsored by a lawmaker with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, prohibits teachers from wearing items such as yarmulkes, crosses, and headscarves. That law received national attention last year when the legislature passed a measure allowing its government workers to wear religious items -- with the exception of teachers. Muslims and Sikhs have been unable to apply for teaching jobs because their religion requires them to wear headscarves. The law is overdue to be changed, House Speaker Dave Hunt told the Oregonian, and a broad spectrum of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs support the change.

Ky. sports council makes recommendations
A commission created by Kentucky law after a high school football player’s heat-related death during practice has made broad recommendations to ensure the safety of student athletes, including a recommendation that all high schools in the state have certified athletic trainers. Only a third of Kentucky high schools currently have trainers, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. The commission found that Kentucky does not keep records of student injuries and cannot determine which sports need more oversight. The commission also said that middle school sports teams should have the same safety requirements as high schools’ sports teams.