By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
About four months after two local Hutterite colonies filed complaints in Helena accusing Havre Public Schools of shorting them tens of thousands of dollars in federal Title I funds, the state education office has confirmed the error and given HPS a deadline to compensate for it.
The East End Colony school administrator who filed one of the complaints said he is not yet satisfied, while the Hilldale Colony school administrator who filed the other declined to comment until a meeting with the state Office of Public Instruction later this month.
In letters sent last week to the Hilldale and East End colonies and to Havre Public Schools, OPI found that HPS had adjusted funding levels over the last two years to compensate the colonies for some of the miscalculated Title I funds. However, HPS still must compensate East End Colony for about $23,720 for underfunding errors, and Hilldale Colony for about $44,250, the letters said.
"The HSPD did, in fact, provide less than equitable services and less than equal expenditures for Title I services to eligible private school students" in the two colonies, the letters said.
"It does conclude that the district was in error in the amount of expenditures for Title I services for private school students at the two colonies," said B.J. Granbery, state director for Title I funds at OPI. She added that the district had not denied the colonies' complaints.
"The district had already recognized that they had made an error," she said. "I just went through and confirmed all of that."
Assistant Superintendent Dennis Parman said today he thinks the ruling is fair.
"I hope it puts this issue to rest," he said. Parman said the district should not have trouble meeting OPI's deadline for compensating the colonies.
"We'll do it as soon as we can," he said. The district will use unexpended Title I funds from the prior year to reimburse the colonies, he said.
The bigger challenge, he said, will be for the colonies use the money in ways that meet the new standards of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's national education plan, which has stricter requirements for how the money is spent.
Title I funds are federal dollars allocated every year to students in public and private schools who are both poor and determined to be two years or more below grade level. Title I funds are not paid directly to schools, but are used to provide services like additional teachers, paraprofessionals and educational materials, Granbery said.
Havre Public Schools submits a request to OPI every year that uses a formula to calculate the appropriate amount of Title I dollars based on the number of students - both public and private - who qualify.
Once OPI receives the money, it sends it to Havre Public Schools. Individual schools then order materials or services to supplement math and reading curricula such as books and tutoring. Havre Public Schools uses the Title I funding to pay for the orders.
The letters order HPS to compensate the colonies for the shortfalls in services and materials within four years - by the end of the 2006-2007 school year. Until then, HPS must submit quarterly reports to OPI showing regular Title I expenditures as well as the amount of back Title I funds paid.
The letters also say OPI will schedule a meeting in Havre with the parties in August to discuss the complaint, OPI's decision and to answer questions.
According to the letter sent to Hilldale Colony, Hilldale Colony School was underfunded about $64,130 between 1997 and 2001. HPS adjusted for the shortage with about $19,880 between 2001 and 2003, leaving about $44,250 still underfunded.
East End Colony School was underfunded about $52,530 between 1995 and 2001, according to the letter sent to East End Colony. HPS adjusted for the shortage with about $28,810, leaving about $23,720 still underfunded.
"The OPI concludes that this procedure of funding additional services must continue until the inequitable allocations and expenditures in the specified former years are rectified, but by no later than the end of the 2006-07 school year," the letters said.
If either party is unsatisfied with OPI's decision, the letter says they would have to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education within 30 days after OPI's resolution.
Hilldale Colony school administrator David Kleinsasser declined to comment on the findings until after the meeting with OPI.
East End Colony school administrator Joe Waldner said Monday he will not know whether he is satisfied with OPI's decision until the meeting with HPS in the next 30 days.
Waldner said he believes the colony school has been underfunded since 1970, and that he had wanted OPI to look earlier than 1995. But he said he is willing to drop his complaint if Havre will grant the colony its own public school.
"We are asking for an elementary school," Waldner said. He said he would "absolutely" pursue the complaint to the U.S. Department of Education if HPS is not willing to compromise.
East End Colony has taken its request for a separate public school or attendance center to the school board several times, most recently in March. At that time the board voted 5-0 against a new attendance center, citing the cost to the district and concerns that the colony would not be willing to meet state accreditation standards.
An attendance center is similar to a school but would receive less district funding.
Waldner said the different culture of Hutterite children and their fear of a culture they're not used to would prevent them from learning at Havre schools.
"You can't put 17 (Hutterite) kids into 1,500 and expect them to learn," he said. "They can't learn when they're scared."
Parman said he realizes East End filed the complaint to try to get leverage to be granted its own public school, and that he doesn't think it will be successful.
"I think the leverage was to create a political or public embarrassment for the school district. And it didn't happen," Parman said, because the district is already resolving the problem. Waldner also said he wants to know why HPS kept the funds from the colonies.
Granbery said she did not determine whether the mistake was accidental or intentional.
"All we can say is there definitely was an error," she said.
HPS officials previously said it was an honest mistake.
Parman has said Havre Public Schools found out about the mistake in the winter of last year, reported it to OPI, and held meetings with the colonies in the spring, when it was agreed that the colonies would be reimbursed about $120,000 total over the next five years. Payments began that summer, and in April Parman said about half the money had been paid back.
According to OPI's findings, the school district has paid back about one-third of the money to Hilldale Colony School and more than half to East End Colony School.
The colonies filed the complaints in separate letters faxed to OPI on April 17.
They had wanted OPI to examine records of Title I funding for 20 years, Granbery said, that was not possible because before 1995, Title I services were not allocated on a per-pupil basis.
Granbery said her office has received two or three similar complaints in the past, but they involved a lot less money.
Granbery said she compared Title I records from the colonies and the school district, reviewed statutes and complaint procedures, and consulted with OPI's attorney before sending the letters.