Concerns about how Fresno Unified uses federal money earmarked for poor and struggling students have prompted state education officials to schedule a return visit to the district next week. They will stop at schools, interview employees and study financial records to decide whether the district is following Title I rules, said Cindy Cunningham Kazanis, an administrator in the California Department of Education federal program monitoring office.
State officials first raised questions about the district's Title I spending during a routine review in January and February. The Title I money is among nine concerns with school policies, bookkeeping and financial practices that the state discovered after inspecting 14 Fresno Unified schools.
After two months of scouring district financial records, "we feel strongly that we need to go back," Kazanis said. She expects to have a decision on whether the funds were spent appropriately by the end of the school year.
Title I, a program under the No Child Left Behind Act, provides federal money for programs, supplies, tutors and services that directly helps at-risk students at schools with high poverty rates.
Fresno's tangle with Title I isn't unique. Education officials said they have noticed more violations as districts continue to grapple with cash shortages and try to patch budget holes by shifting around funds. Kazanis said about half of the school districts reviewed this year were cited for improperly spending Title I funds.
The reviews occur every four years and thoroughly examine programs such as English-language learning and child development.
There are few repercussions for ignoring Title I rules. Districts don't pay penalties to the state, and they have up to 225 days to comply before the state Board of Education tells them to fix the problem, or risk losing funding.
A U.S. Department of Education official said the federal government could require repayment of Title I money, but such situations are extreme.
Spending raises a flag
Each school district that qualifies for Title I can decide the best way to spend it but must follow two rules: the money must support teaching at-risk kids, and all Title I-funded programs and staff must be supplemental to the school's basic services, said the U.S. Department of Education official, who asked that his name not be used to comply with agency policies.
Fresno Unified uses Title I money to pay the salaries of vice principals and teachers on special assignment in each of its 64 elementary schools that receive the federal funds. The vice principals get 50% to 70% of their salaries from Title I, according to district documents. The district also places teachers on special assignments in some schools to help with administrative work. Eighty percent of their salaries come from Title I, according to district documents.
The state also is investigating whether the district appropriately spent Title I money for the salaries of seven elementary school, one middle-school and eight Roosevelt High School teachers. State officials were uncertain how much Title I money might have been spent inappropriately, and Fresno Unified declined to say how much it spent on salaries for the vice principals and teachers.
Ruth Quinto, Fresno Unified deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, said the district has submitted paperwork proving that the Roosevelt teachers were paid correctly. She said that updated school plans may answer questions about other staff.
Officials initially reviewed 14 schools, including three elementaries, but will widen the focus to other schools on next week's revisit, Kazanis said.
Paying administrators "with Title I funds would raise a flag," the federal education official said.
He said administrators are usually considered essential to a school's operation -- not an additional service that meets Title I requirements -- and schools should have enough money in their general fund for administrative salaries.
According to the district's job description, vice principals spend about half their time working with at-risk youth, such as counseling and mentoring, and making home visits to support parents. The other half is administrative, such as evaluating teachers, assisting the principal and disciplining students.
Fresno Unified trustee Larry Moore says that description may not be realistic. He said discipline and administrative duties alone are a full-time job, and questions whether any Title I-funded vice principal in the district has the time to make house visits or counsel students.
Federal laws allow districts to use up to 15% of their Title I funding for administrative costs, but the rest must go directly to services for kids, said Jeff Breshears, a Title I expert at the state Department of Education. He said state officials are investigating whether Fresno Unified exceeded that limit.
Districts are supposed to justify their Title 1 spending through school plans, research and budgets, but "so far, we don't have that evidence" from Fresno Unified, Breshears said.
Fresno Unified has run into problems before with the 15% rule. The 2008 review cited the district for paying administrators with money that should have gone to helping students. It corrected the problem by updating vice principals' time logs, according to district documents.
Money that matters
Without Title I funds, Fresno Unified would be left with a budgetary hole. A state database shows the district got more than $46 million from Title I this year -- the second-largest allocation in the state, behind Los Angeles Unified's $342 million. Ninety Fresno Unified schools get Title I funds.
"If we lose [Title I], how can we educate our kids?" said school board President Tony Vang. "It's extremely, extremely important. You have a school district where some of the schools are 90% free-and-reduced lunch."
Kazanis said the district fixed some of the non-Title I problems by the March 19 deadline and asked for an extension to sort out other issues.
"We're very pleased with the progress the district is making," she said.
Quinto said Fresno Unified performed better in the review than other districts. Many issues were quickly fixed by updating budgets and policies, and giving more documents to the state. She noted the improvement over 2008, when the state inspected 17 schools and found 25 problems.
But Kazanis cautions against merely comparing numbers to gauge improvement. With each review, state officials look at different programs at different schools, and each program is measured differently, she said.
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