Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stimulus May Help Area Schools

Local school administrators are dreaming about smaller class sizes and more after-school programs thanks to the federal stimulus bill signed into law Tuesday.
Texas school districts can expect a jolt of more than $3 billion over two years under the $787 billion package ushered in by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Under the bill, schools must spend much of the money on programs targeting children from low-income families and students with disabilities. That means large districts with more disadvantaged students will reap the most money — the Houston Independent School District is expected to pocket $158.6 million — though even the smaller, more affluent Friendswood ISD is slated to receive $1 million.

Officials at the Texas Education Agency, which will distribute the funds to local districts, still are reviewing the federal spending rules. But they expect tens of millions to go toward technology and also hope the federal funds can cover textbooks (the state’s book fund is short) and hurricane-related school repairs.
“I don’t think there’s a shortage of wish lists. The needs are great,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman. “This could help put people to work and improve the schools. But we’ve all got to be careful how we spend it and make sure it’s on reasonable, needed projects.”

Ratcliffe said the federal funds could help districts avoid layoffs, but it’s unknown how many, if any, new school jobs will be created.
Hiring plans iffy
Local district officials said they are reluctant to hire a slew of new staff because the federal funds are scheduled to dry up in two years.

“We don’t want to hire a bunch of teachers and then have to do a reduction in force. That’s very demoralizing for your staff,” said Sarah Winkler, president of the Alief school board. “Whatever we do, it’s going to be something we think we can sustain or something we think is a temporary need.”

Alief ISD stands to receive $25.8 million, or about $570 per student. In comparison, Katy ISD, which has a smaller percentage of low-income children, will get less than $200 per student. In North Forest, where nearly all the students come from poor families, the $9.9 million payout works out to nearly $1,200 per student.
HISD’s chief financial officer, Melinda Garrett, said the district is considering using the stimulus money to lower class sizes — which would mean hiring more teachers — and to extend the school day for some — which would mean extra pay for teachers.
“That money will hit the economy through some sort of spending,” Garrett said.
The extra funding for special education also is expected to help school districts nationwide, which have long complained that the federal government greatly underfunds the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

HISD, for example, receives about $77 million a year in federal funding for special education but spends an additional $150 million on top of that. The stimulus bill would deliver an extra $55.7 million to HISD for special education.
HISD’s funding for low-income children, via the federal Title I program, would double under the stimulus bill.
In Spring Branch, Superintendent Duncan Klussmann said he is considering pouring money into after-school programs . Improving technology also is an option.

“What we have to be very careful of is, the federal dollars will be a one-time infusion of funds,” he said.
The U.S. House’s plan for $16 billion for school repairs and modernization didn’t make it into the final stimulus bill, but some school construction dollars still might be available through the state’s share of the stimulus package. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said no details were available Tuesday.

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