- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

Contracting officials at D.C. Public Schools are frantically trying to spend $20 million in federal funds for teacher training and professional development before the close of business today, or lose the money, according to D.C. and Education Department sources.

In addition, as of mid-September, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) had not even drawn down $3.8 million in formula and discretionary grants from 27 federal awards, according to Education Department records. The $3.8 million will automatically revert to the federal government tomorrow because it was not drawn down from the Treasury, department officials said.

“The D.C. Public Schools professional development office has been … throwing [the $20 million] out the window, because otherwise they’d have to return the money after Tuesday when the fiscal year ends,” said a source close to the office.

“Over the past few weeks, they invited any and all proposals [from contractors] and tried to fast-track funding,” said the source, a D.C. contractor who asked not to be named.

Robert Rice, chief academic officer for DCPS, said it is possible that the $3.8 million in discretionary funds were not drawn down but said he has no knowledge of the additional $20 million.

“I am really puzzled by the idea that we were given $23.8 million for professional development,” Mr. Rice said.

He said according to his calculations, the most the office had available was $1.25 million. Mr. Rice also said he was not sure if the money came by way of a grant or through the D.C. appropriations bill.

Discovery of the leftover $23.8 million — nearly one-third of the annual federal appropriation to D.C. schools — comes as opponents of a $13 million school voucher program for the District, proposed in Congress, complain that the voucher funding should go instead to the public schools.

The untapped grants are intended to help D.C. schools, primarily through professional development of teachers.

The grants were awarded to the District under Title II of the No Child Left Behind Act, which this year increased federal funding for the District by $13.1 million.

Federal officials concerned about the District’s handling of federal funds for school improvement say most of the money DCPS may lose was intended to make D.C. teachers better through professional training.

Voucher proponents say children from low-income families trapped in failing D.C. schools are suffering from a widening achievement gap because of inadequate teachers, among other reasons.

According to federal officials, the $23.8 million that DCPS could lose was made available in fiscal 2003 appropriations, but that the D.C. Council did not draw down the money until May or June.

There were further bureaucratic hitches when the council drew down the funds and moved to transfer them to DCPS, further delaying the professional development office’s receipt of the funds until the beginning of this month, according to DCPS contracting sources.

D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the Education Committee, said that is untrue.

“I don’t know what they’re talking about. [The council] doesn’t draw down the money nor do we have anything to do with federal dollars coming to the schools,” he said.

But Mr. Rice said there is some disagreement over who draws the money and how it is transferred.

“The money is drawn down by the council or the mayor’s office, and there is an issue about the timeliness of when that money gets to [the schools],” he said.

However, the schools have been moving to get contracts awarded, according to the contracting source, and some of the proposals submitted to DCPS “got stuck” because of some concerns from public school officials.

Mr. Rice said it is impossible for the school system to obligate that much money in a month’s time, given the District’s contracting process.

“We’ve been trying to obligate those things we can,” he said.

This year, the District was awarded a total of $80.6 million for 23 different programs under the No Child Left Behind Act. President Bush’s budget for fiscal 2004, which starts tomorrow, would add another $2 million.

For special education, DCPS was awarded $14.6 million, an increase of $2 million over last year. The administration’s 2004 budget would add another $1.2 million for special education.

Mr. Chavous said the council last year discovered that the school system was not applying for grants it was eligible for and failing to maximize the dollars it received.

“I set up a meeting between school officials and Education Secretary Rod Paige to ensure that we did apply for everything we were entitled to,” he said. “Now we will have to conduct a follow-up hearing to make sure the schools are maximizing the dollars.”

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