By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The state Office of Public Instruction declined to consider a local Hutterite colony's plea for a separate, publicly funded school as part of its decision on a Title I funding error by Havre Public Schools.
The decision left one of the school administrators unsatisfied and vowing to continue his fight for a separate school.
On Thursday afternoon, the school administrators of East End and Hilldale colonies met with Havre Public Schools administrators and three OPI officials to discuss implementation of OPI's Aug. 1 ruling that HPS must compensate East End and Hilldale colonies a total of about $68,000 in Title I funds. OPI found that the colonies were underfunded between 1995 and 2001 as a result of HPS' miscalculations.
Title I funds are federal dollars allocated every year to help 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.
New stricter requirements in how Title I funds are spent as part of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's education policy, mean the colonies may not be able to use Title I dollars for the same services they have in the past, such as paying for German tutoring. Beginning this fall, HPS will begin consultations with the colonies to make sure the dollars are spent properly.
Making sure HPS and the colonies work together to meet those requirements was part of the reason for the meeting.
During the meeting, OPI officials refused to answer questions not directly related to the Title I issue, including East End Colony's efforts to be granted a separate school or attendance center.
"If this becomes legal action as a result of discrimination ... would OPI step in and help us get a release from Havre Public Schools?" East End Colony school administrator Joe Waldner asked the OPI officials.
"I'm not even going to answer that question," state Deputy Superintendent of Schools Spencer Sartorius said.
East End Colony has taken its request for a separate public school or attendance center to the Havre 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.
Both East End and Hilldale Colony filed complaints in separate letters faxed to OPI on April 17 that HPS had underfunded Title I for both schools. On Aug. 1, OPI confirmed that an error had been made, and ruled that the district compensate the colonies for errors dating back to 1995. It set a deadline of the 2006-2007 school year for the colonies to be compensated, and mandated that the district submit quarterly reports until then documenting Title I expenditures.
The complaints asked OPI to track Title I funding levels for the colonies for the past 20 years, and at the meeting Waldner asked OPI why it did not go back further than 1995.
B.J. Granbery, state director for Title I funds at OPI, said that was not possible because before 1995, Title I services were not allocated on a per-pupil basis.
Waldner also pressed for an explanation of why the funding mistakes occurred.
HPS officials have said the miscalculation was an honest mistake.
OPI officials refused to speculate why the colonies were underfunded.
"We're not going to sit here and cast blame," Sartorius said. "It occurred over a number of years, and it was probably an honest mistake."
But Waldner said he wants the U.S. Department of Education to look into the matter.
"I had an eighth-grade diploma and I was able to figure out how this was calculated," Waldner said. He said the per-pupil allocation figures HPS sent to the colony were about 80 percent less than the figures it sent to OPI.
"Why would you send paperwork to the colony that your share is $100 per student and to OPI it was like $875 from K through fifth grade?" he said. Waldner was referring to paperwork obtained from OPI in April that showed the per-pupil Title I allocation of $895 for students in Highland Park Early Primary School in 2000-2001. Paperwork forwarded to East End Colony that year showed a K-8 allocation of $203 per student. Similar paperwork for 2001-2002 showed a per-pupil allocation of $780 per year in Lincoln-McKinley Primary School, while paperwork sent to East End Colony showed a total allocation of $3,300 for 31 colony students - an average of about $106 per student.
HPS Assistant Superintendent Dennis Parman, who has been in charge of calculating the Title I allocations since 1997, said he is offended by Waldner's comments, and that he simply used the wrong set of students to make the calculations.
Every May, the district fills out the applications for Title I funds. On the application, Parman said, private school students are added to the count of eligible public school students according to which schools they would attend if they went to public school. Also in May, the district receives estimates of available Title I funds from OPI and calculates a per-pupil allocation based on that estimate. Parman said the HPS per-pupil allocation Waldner was referring to - $895 and $780 in 2001 and 2002 - were based on those estimates.
In August the district gets the final allocation numbers from OPI and calculates the amount of Title I funds each student receives with a formula, which does not distinguish between private and public students, Parman said.
That was where the error occurred, he said. Instead of dividing the students who met the Title I poverty criteria by the total allocation to get a per-pupil amount, he divided by the total student enrollment, resulting in a lower amount per student.
The district acknowledged the error before OPI got involved and began compensating the colonies for the shortfall.