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Christel House Academy South has had to make staffing cuts as it waits on fixes to Title I funding.

Christel House Academy South has had to make staffing cuts as it waits on fixes to Title I funding.

Scott Elliott

Poverty funding restored after error, but school leaders say fix is too little, too late

Almost a year after dozens of Indiana schools discovered they had been shortchanged on the federal funding they needed to support students who live in poverty, the money is finally coming in — but now it’s too late to be of much help.

“This funding is extremely late,” said Carey Dahncke, director of Christel House Academies who reported last year that his charter school had been shorted about $122,000 in federal school poverty aid because of an error by the Indiana Department of Education.

With Indiana students expected to finish up the high-stakes standardized ISTEP exam by early May, it’s too late to hire teachers or coaches to help students prepare for the test. It’s also too late to help the school boost scores on an exam that’s used to determine everything from teacher bonuses to whether a school receives a passing grade on state accountability measures.

“There is now absolutely no opportunity for us to use this funding to support our impoverished students before ISTEP,” Dahncke said.

Christel House, which blamed the error for the decision to lay off three educators who supported the school’s neediest students, was among 22 charter schools that saw large cuts in their share of Title I poverty aid. That’s about one-third of the state’s 59 public charter schools. Other schools saw smaller dips, held steady, or increased, said Michelle McKeown, policy director for the Indiana Charter School Board. But those totals were kept within federal guidelines, unlike with the 22 charter schools, she said.

The problem stemmed from errors made by the state Department of Education, which did not calculate poverty aid for charter schools based on the prior year’s funding as the law requires, federal officials said.

Complaints from schools like Christel House led the U.S. Department of Education to begin an investigation into how the state calculated and distributed Title I funding. That led to corrections that have been made over the past month, with multiple schools reporting that they’ve received Title I money they were owed.

Christel House’s South and West campuses received about $115,000 and $30,000, respectively, from the state last month.

Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Hart said the department is working with districts that saw large funding fluctuations to mitigate the impact of changes going forward.

“As we do every year, the Department recently updated the Title I planning allocations for schools,” Hart said in an email. “However, these totals have not been finalized due to the ongoing review of historical Title I allocations.”

Gary Lighthouse Charter School was initially told it would get $100,000 to $200,000 less in Title I funding for 2015-16, so the school planned carefully said Jeremy Williams, the director of the Northwest Indiana Lighthouse schools. But as it turns out, the Gary school got back almost $500,000 last month. Williams was surprised at the increase, but laments the timing — and he still has no idea how the amount was calculated.

“You really can’t invest in people and staffing at this point, so you try and roll over as much as you can (to next year),” Williams said.

McKeown said she knew of two other area charter schools — Nexus Academy of Indianapolis and Indianapolis Metropolitan High School — that have received about $8,000 and $40,000 back from the state. In all three schools, officials said the amounts were close to what Title I projections originally had been for the year. However, Dahncke said the Indiana Department of Education offered no explanation for how the new funding total was determined and the money was deposited with little fanfare.

“(There was) no additional data or information,” Dahncke said. “However, these amounts match previous funding levels. So, they seem correct.”

Recently, principals in Indianapolis Public Schools were also notified that the district would end up with $3.1 million less in Title I funds than the $20.6 million it was quoted at the beginning of the year, said district spokeswoman Kristin Cutler.

Last year, IPS received $18,768,277 in Title I funds.

In September, federal officials said less than one percent of Indiana’s traditional public school districts saw cuts as steep as those at charter schools. But Title I data provided by the state today show several public school districts also had higher updated amounts — by as much as 11 percent — meaning they were also shorted originally. Among Marion County schools that appear to have been initially shortchanged are Speedway Schools and Lawrence, Washington, Warren, Wayne and Pike townships. In addition to IPS, Beech Grove Schools and Franklin, Perry and Decatur townships saw decreases.

Since federal education officials began investigating in September, they’ve requested data and information from the state. On Monday, an official from the U.S. Department of Education said Indiana is redoing six years of Title I calculations — from 2010 to 2015. However, charter school leaders say the cuts seen in 2015-16 were much larger than any disparities in other years.

“(The federal education department) has provided and is continuing to provide the Indiana Department of Education (IDE) with technical assistance to address problems with IDE’s calculation of Title I allocations over a number of years, to help prevent the problems from occurring again, and to ensure that IDE takes any necessary corrective actions to account for over- or under-allocation of Title I funds to both regular school districts and charter school districts,” the official said in an email.

The federal education department’s initial email to Indiana officials — obtained by Chalkbeat last fall — says the state incorrectly applied provisions of federal law when determining this year’s Title I poverty aid for charter schools.

Federal officials have said that any “state education agency” (in this case, the Indiana Department of Education) cannot reduce the amount of Title I funding for a “local education agency” (a school district or individual charter school) by more than 15 percent from the prior year.

These “hold harmless” rules attempt to keep schools from seeing shocks to their budgets that could compromise the staff and day-to-day operations.

The federal education department confirmed that because of calculation errors by the state education department and an incorrect application of the “hold harmless rules,” some districts or schools got more money than they should have, and some got less.

Ultimately, McKeown said, it would be better if the state acknowledged a mistake was made so everything can be fixed and Indiana can move on.

The Indiana General Assembly has already acted to try to ensure that’s the case going forward. Lawmakers passed House Bill 1330, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, earlier this year. The law requires, among other things, that the Indiana Department of Education make available to schools and districts the formula and data they use to calculate federal poverty aid.

McKeown and Dahncke are hopeful that the law can help guarantee this situation doesn’t repeat itself.

“No one knew, no one announced anything,” McKeown said. “Everyone is glad to get the money, but it doesn’t necessarily give a ton of comfort to people when there is still a lack of transparency around this.”