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.
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