Plans to lengthen the school day at eight low-income middle schools are now hanging in the balance because of a squabble between city and state officials.
With a little more than four weeks before the school year starts, the schools counting on nearly $8 million in “extended learning time” grants have been told the money is in danger of being withheld because the city’s application didn’t comply with state contracting rules.
Many of the city schools set to receive the funds, such as M.S. 223 in the Bronx and I.S. 340 in Brooklyn, lengthened the day for sixth graders last year by two and a half hours as part of a pilot with the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative and were planning to expand those programs. Another school, I.S. 77 in Queens, wasn’t part of the MSQI pilot, but had extended its day for some students by 40 minutes in the morning.
The uncertainty has frustrated officials who hoped that by now they would have been able to start planning for longer days when the school year begins Sept. 4.
“This is a great opportunity for a huge amount of funding, and it’s going to be hard to try to do this in two weeks in August,” said an official from a school set to receive some of the funds.
The funding hold-up is the latest in a string of issues that has plagued Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s touted competitive education grants. Cuomo first floated extended learning time in a speech 19 months ago that laid out his 2013 budget priorities for the year.
Capital New York reported last week that just two winning districts statewide had concrete plans for implementing extended learning time models in their schools, while two other districts were considering dropping out entirely, citing the limited time they had to implement the programs.
With the school year a month away, city schools are still eager to get started, said Chris Caruso, vice president at The After School Corporation, one of three nonprofits picked by the city to help implement the grants this year.
“I know that the schools are anxious and from what I hear there continues to be optimism that this will get resolved,” Caruso said.
City education officials said the hang-up was because of a disagreement over a state law that’s meant to ensure that minority or woman-owned businesses are given an equal opportunity in state-funded contracts or grants. The city says the law doesn’t apply to the department in this case and is seeking a waiver, while officials for Cuomo have insisted that any applications for state-funded grants must comply.
“In other words, the State selected us as a district grant recipient even though the proposal as submitted did not meet the expectations required,” Christina Fuentes, who directs the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, wrote in an email to principals and nonprofits who were part of the application on Tuesday.
Fuentes said the department was ready to start a fight over the matter.
“We are currently working with our legal department and aligning our interests with political entities to try to get over this impasse,” Fuentes wrote.
Representatives for both the governor’s office and the State Education Department refuted Fuentes’ concerns and said the city’s grant was not being withheld. They would not confirm if the city’s application complied with state procurement laws and said the money had not been disbursed yet because the grant process wasn’t complete.
After Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the email and followed up with questions to the city department’s press office, a spokeswoman downplayed any disagreement and said the issue was headed toward an amicable settlement. She said that the city was working with the governor’s office to comply with the state’s Minority/Woman-owned Business Enterprise law.
“The DOE is finalizing a robust [Minority and Women Business Enterprises] plan, and we are working towards fuller MWBE participation in the coming year to ensure we receive this critical funding,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “We are examining ways we can support schools and programs this upcoming year, in case there is a delay in funding.”