Middletown Schools Refute Allegations of Funds Misuse
There have been recent allegations of misappropriation of Title I grant funding at Middletown public schools. According to these allegations, funds have been distributed to entities that do not qualify for funding and have been appropriated for services not intended to receive coverage under Title I. New Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools Dr. Patricia Charles has denied any wrongdoing by Middletown school administrators.
The Title I program, which was created by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, provides additional funding to schools serving low-income students. The district administrators allocate the federal grants to the schools, and the funds are re-appropriated on a 10-to-15-year cycle.
“In general, Title I is a federal entitlement program,” said Middletown Public Schools’ Director of Grant Services Elizabeth Nocera. “It is an entitlement grant that comes through the federal budget into individual states on a formulaic basis. Title I is included in what’s now commonly called No Child Left Behind, but that actually is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”
The Middletown Public School District uses the free or reduced lunch rate from the previous October to determine which schools are eligible for Title I funding, according to Nocera. Schools with 40 percent, which is the district average, or more of the student body on the free or reduced lunch rate qualify for the funding.
“For the local level we use the free and reduced lunch rate,” Nocera explained. “We also could use TANF, which is Temporary Aid to Needy Families, but there are so few families that qualify for TANF. [Schools] are ranked by their free and reduced rate, and if a school falls below the district average, then they are not eligible for Title I services.”
On the federal level, the funding is granted based on a complex formula including rolling poverty rates. Last year, the Middletown school district received approximately $707,000 in Title I funding. This year, the district administrators hope to receive around $680,000.
“[Title I] provides additional support for some of our neediest schools,” Charles said. “Some of the money we use directly is targeted to specific schools and other parts of that money are [used] generally.”
Currently, four of the eight public elementary schools in Middletown are designated Title I schools: Commodore Macdonough, Frederick J. Bielefield, Farm Hill, and Bertrand E. Spencer. According to Nocera, the Middletown school district only considers elementary schools for Title I funding.
“The opportunity that districts have to serve particular schools comes depending on what grade level the school serves,” Nocera explained. “Our middle schools may be eligible for Title I services, but as a district we have the opportunity to select the grade levels that we want to serve. Those decisions are made at the local level. We make a local decision to concentrate our resources at the elementary level.”
While the decision to withhold Title I funding from middle and high schools is allowed by law, all elementary schools that qualify for the funding must be served, according to Nocera. In addition, private elementary schools in Middletown must receive Title I funding at the district-wide per pupil rate. The rate is derived from the total amount of grant funding divided by the number of students eligible for the free or reduced lunch rate. Currently the per pupil rate is $600 in Middletown; it includes all attendees at the schools that receive the funding.
“[Title I funds] are school-wide programs,” Nocera said. “So all of the students in those schools are considered to be Title I students.”
Charles agreed with Nocera's statement.
“Some schools would have greater poverty [rates] than others, and so the allocation [is] per child,” Charles said. “You’ve got more kids, you get more money.”
Nocera explained the process of determining the distribution of funds.
“We get a district amount and then we have to calculate what the non-public portion of the grant is,” Nocera said. “So some of it is allocated to the non-public schools. We have to take their word for it; they don’t have to complete forms or anything.”
The costs of certain programs, such as the Snow School pre-school, administration, parent involvement, and professional development, are removed before the grant money is divided into the per-pupil rate.
“There are certain costs that we are allowed to remove off the top, and then the balance has to be distributed to the non-public schools and the qualifying elementary schools,” Nocera explained.
Executive Director of the North End Action Team (NEAT) Izzi Greenberg said that over the past several years, many people in the Middletown community suspected that Title I funds weren't being used properly.
“My sense from previous years is that they may have been paying for things that were not really above and beyond the other schools, which is what Title I is designed for,” Greenberg said.
Nocera said the primary indicator of need for supplemental services is the adult to student ratio. She said that this is different from supplanting funds.
“The words that [are] often used in grants [are] supplanting versus supplementing,” Nocera explained. “And you want to ensure that the adult to student ratio is lower in Title I schools, because it is intended to be supplementary.”
Charles said the Title I schools do in fact have a smaller ratio of adults to students. She refuted any allegations of wrongdoing.
“[Title I] absolutely is being appropriated correctly,” Charles said. “I think there is a misconception that there is some misuse of the funds. The schools that have the Title I program do get more than our other schools.”
Charles noted that she is not familiar with previous allegations related to Title I.
“I’m a newcomer; I don’t know whether this has come up in the past,” Charles said. “I’m hoping that we’re sort of nipping it in the bud.”
Charles was hired as superintendent during the summer of 2012. Before Charles, Michael Frechette served as the superintendent of Middletown Public Schools, before resigning amidst controversy about “scream rooms” and other issues. Dr. David Larson briefly served as Interim Superintendent before Charles was named as Frechette's replacement. Currently, Charles is operating with Frechette’s budget from the past year.
“[Charles is] working with last year’s budget, which was created by a previous superintendent,” Greenberg said. “So any positions that are in place now, or any discrepancies that may exist were essentially not her doing.”
In particular, the administrative position of Parent Resource Coordinator has attracted controversy.
“We do use a position that covers parent involvement in the district that does provide some services to some of the other schools,” Nocera said. “But in fact we are working this year to ensure that a portion of that salary is apportioned to other grants.”
According to Charles, the speaking engagements and workshops that the Parent Resource Coordinator organizes should not exclude parents from schools that do not receive Title I funding.
“If we bring in a speaker and there’s room for other elementary teachers to participate, of course we would let them participate,” Charles said.
According to Nocera, parents with students at both Title I schools and non-Title I schools add to the confusion.
“First of all, one of the difficulties is that parents have children in multiple schools,” Nocera said. “So, it could be a Macdonough parent that also has a child at Keigwin, Woodrow Wilson, and Middletown High. So to exclude other parents doesn’t make any sense; that’s not the spirit of Title I.”
As with other grants, city auditors review the Title I funding each year, employing federal guidelines, Nocera said. In addition, a more in-depth audit is performed on a three-year cycle.
“So every year our compliance is checked,” Nocera said.
Greenberg said she will continue to look into the allocation of Title I funding and encourages people to get involved in all parts of the education process.
“NEAT’s job is to advocate for the interests of the neighborhood,” Greenberg said. “It’s important that everyone feel confident that the resources that are supposed to be supporting students are actually getting there. We are actively working on school issues, so if there are people who are interested in finding out more, they can contact us and be a part of that.”