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Funding for no-longer-turnaround schools still an open question

Rejoice is turning to concern about funding at schools newly spared from an aggressive overhaul process.

The seven schools — all with top grades on the city’s performance metrics — pulled from the Department of Education’s “turnaround” roster on Monday were positioned to receive about $15 million in federal School Improvement Grants next year.

Being taken off the turnaround list means the schools won’t have to replace half of their teachers, lose their names, or get new principals. But it also means that they might not receive the funds: A letter distributed by the Department of Education to students at the schools on Tuesday states, “We regret that this [change] may result in the loss of federal resources for your school.”

The funds could make the difference between continued improvement and backsliding for the schools.

Five of the seven schools had received SIG funds in 2010 and 2011, enabling them to pay for enhancements that their principals said led to quick improvements. At Brooklyn’s School of Global Studies, nearly $1 million received under “transformation” allowed the school to buy new technology and hire expert teachers. William E. Grady Career and Technical High School paid for tutoring, college trips, an extended program, and Saturday school for students who had fallen behind. Both schools scored B’s on their most recent city progress reports after years of low grades.

“If we don’t get the money we wont be able to finish what we started,” Geraldine Maione, Grady’s principal, said this week. “We started out on the premise that we were getting this money for three years because that is what we were told.”

The city has signaled that it would like to see the schools get the extra aid. When he announced the turnaround changes, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department would “continue to support these schools in their growth.” On Thursday, he said the city was examining its capacity to provide extra funding.

But Walcott did not specify whether the schools would receive the same level of additional funding that they would have received under turnaround. He also did not specify whether the schools would be able to carry out the enhancements, such as restructuring into small learning communities or adding new technical programs, that the city had detailed in public proposals for each school. Department officials have declined to answer those questions this week.

There are three ways the funding question could be resolved.

The city could ask the schools to carry on without any extra funds — but that would risk setting the schools back, exactly the outcome that Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said was undesirable when she spoke out against turnaround at Grady and other schools that had shown improvements.

Plus, the seven schools are still on the state’s list of “persistently low-achieving” schools, so the city must submit new plans showing how it will help them improve. Plans that do not call for extra funding could run into trouble getting approved — particularly after the city briefly argued that the schools desperately need additional funds. If city officials suddenly say they were wrong about the schools’ need, their credibility in requesting turnaround funding for 26 schools still slated for the process could be damaged.

Another option, to try again to seek federal funds for the schools, would require new teacher evaluations to be in place so the schools could be restored to “transformation” and restart, the federal reform processes most of them had already been undergoing. The city’s letter to students at the seven schools suggested that this option is on the table, saying, “However, we are continuing to press for an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, to implement a strong teacher evaluation system” that would allow “a different school improvement model.”

In some ways, an agreement seems within reach. After all, the union and city have announced an agreement on a key point of dispute from the failed talks, and union and city officials are scheduled to have their first session next week with a mediator who is charged with jump-starting evaluation talks for the schools that were undergoing transformation and restart.

But the city bristled at being ordered back into talks, and it is hard to imagine the city and union working out and implementing new teacher evaluations in seven schools when they failed reach a deal for 33 schools — giving rise to the impasse that prompted the turnaround plan in the first place.

Finally, the city could simply come up with funds from its own coffers to make up the difference. Funding enhancements at seven schools with top grades would raise issues of equity, and the city has signaled that it has limited tolerance for paying a bill it believes the state should cover with federal funds. When the Panel for Educational Policy last month approved a contract for nonprofit partnerships at 11 schools that were undergoing “restart” this year, department officials said the schools would cease to receive funding if the state does not approve SIG funds for next year.

But there are also signs that the city could shoulder the costs. In its plans for the schools, the Department of Education suggested that it might be able to foot the bill, saying that it would carry out turnaround even if the state did not agree to fund the efforts. And $15 million is a tiny line item for a department with a total budget of more than $20 billion — especially when the city is receiving more school aid from the state this year than it had anticipated.

On Thursday, Walcott said the department was exploring how to meet the seven schools’ funding. “I’ll be talking to the principals and getting more information from them and listening to their feedback and then we’ll be making the determinations,” he said. “What we’re doing is looking at our finances as well and how we could financially support them. We want to make sure we can continue their progress.”

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