Colonies take their school complaint to Helena
After more than a year of insisting that their schools have not been paid what they should have by Havre Public Schools, the East End and Hilldale Hutterite colonies have taken their complaint to Helena.
On Thursday, school administrators from the colonies' two schools each filed a complaint with the Office of Public Instruction in Helena requesting a review of the federal Title I funding given to the colonies by the Havre school district.
At issue are Title I funds intended for the East End and Hilldale colonies and not received as a result of miscalculations by the school district. Havre Public Schools has already admitted the error and begun making back payments.
According to a document given to East End Colony school administrator Joe Waldner by Dennis Parman, the assistant superintendent of Havre Public Schools, the colony should have gotten $83,758 between 1994 and 2002, but received $22,372.
Exact numbers of the miscalculation for Hilldale Colony were not available this morning, but Parman said it was also about $60,000.
Parman said this morning he had not yet seen the complaint.
He 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 Parman said about half the money has been paid back.
"We believe we had an agreement to that," Parman said this morning. "We'll continue to pay on it until it's complete."
Waldner said he thinks the problem goes back many more years. His complaint requests that OPI review the allocations for the past 20 school years.
The problem, Parman said, is that those documents may not exist anymore.
"If the paperwork's produced, we're going to be responsible for that," he said. "We're going to do what's right here."
Title I funds are federal dollars allocated every year to students in both public and private schools who are both poor and determined to be two years or more below grade level.
"We had I don't know how many kids that graduated without the teacher's aide, without the books" that would have been funded with Title I funds, Waldner said, adding that the effect is unquantifiable.
B.J. Granbery, the state Title I director at OPI, said she has only received one other formal complaint in the last 10 years, so she is unsure exactly how to proceed.
She said she would review the complaints and act within 60 days.
OPI's policy on complaints is written very broadly, and does not specify remedies or enforcement, she said, so she will probably ask the U.S. Department of Education for help.
"We need to get to the bottom of the matter and straighten it out," she said.
"We have the authority to tell the district to take certain actions," Granbery said. "If there's noncompliance, we can always withhold funds. That's the bottom line here."
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.
"Please compare the actual total annual funds allocated and forwarded to the colony to that which was required by law for those same years," the complaints read.
Officials reacted with surprise that the complaints had been filed.
"As I understood it, Havre realized they had made an error in that district and were in the process of correcting the error," said Hill County Superintendent of Schools Shirley Isbell, adding that some payments to the colony had already been made. "I don't know what more the Havre district can do."
Granbery also said she was surprised.
"I thought they had reached some resolution with the district," she said. "Apparently that's fallen through."
"They were willing to drop the whole issue of Title I funding if HPS was willing to admit the colony into the district as an attendance center," Granbery said.
Waldner said the decision to file the complaint was tied to the school board's rejection of the colony's request for an attendance center in February.
"We gave them the opportunity to settle," Waldner said. "If they were willing to accept us as a school we would have put this behind us."
He said the colony has been able to pay for a teacher's aide and some books for summer school with some of the back funding, but that the district still owes it money.