City schools’ panel requests finance liaison

By Denise Dick



The academic-distress commission that developed a recovery plan for city schools will direct the district to hire someone to work with the state fiscal- oversight commission.

“We’re going to direct the board of education to hire someone who is going to work with the fiscal commission to give us an accurate description of the finances,” said Debra Mettee, chairwoman of the Youngstown Schools Academic Distress Commission.

The academic-distress commission meets at 2 p.m. Monday at the Mahoning County Educational Service Center in Boardman.

Last month, the state superintendent of public instruction approved that commission’s plan that spells out goals and benchmarks for the district. The plan has a price tag of about $3.2 million annually.

Anthony Catale, school board president, has said that though funding of the first year of the program isn’t expected to be a problem, he worries about how to fund it beyond then.

Catale in recent weeks has asked for a meeting among the school board, the fiscal oversight and the academic distress commissions so the board could get guidance on the plan and how to pay for it.

But Mettee said that’s not going to happen.

“We’re two separate entities,” she said, referring to the two commissions. “We each have our own roles, and we’re both independent.”

The commission’s directive is very specific, Mettee said.

The plan points to federal stimulus and Title I funds to cover costs. But, Catale has said, it’s uncertain whether stimulus funds will be available beyond this year.

The school district also has to be sure it can legally use Title I money for the programs proscribed in the academic recovery plan, he said. Title I dollars are aimed at economically disadvantaged students.

“Our administration isn’t entirely comfortable that the Title I money can be used in that way,” he said.

It may require a waiver from the state or federal government, the board president said.

The district is concerned that if it uses a portion of the money in a way that’s not specifically permitted under the program’s requirements, the federal government could take back all of the district’s Title I money, he said.

“There’s a lot of strings attached to federal money,” Catale said.

Superintendent Wendy Webb said Title I money is “very targeted and specified.”

“Much of the plan will be supported through federal funding,” she said. “We just need clarification from the state that the ways we wanted to use it would be OK.”

Webb said that the district is working with the Ohio Department of Education to address those issues and may have to secure a waiver.

One of the areas where clarification on the use of Title I money is needed is teacher pay.

The plan calls for an additional 30 kindergarten and first-grade teachers to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio to 15-to-1 in those grades.

There’s no problem with first grade, but Webb said there are concerns about whether the district is able to use the federal money to pay kindergarten teachers. There has to be comparability of spending between general fund and Title I dollars.

Mettee, who is also superintendent of the Springfield school district, said that’s why the commission wants someone with that expertise to be hired to work with the fiscal commission.

“They need to look for someone who has worked with federal funds at a higher level than a district,” she said.

That person will be paid by the district.

Webb said having such a person in place will be helpful.

The commission issued requests for proposals for three areas: a monitor for implementation of the plan; an independent contractor to complete a comprehensive audit of district systems, policies and processes; and an external service provider to work with teachers and building principals.

Those requests are due later this month with contracts to be awarded in early September.

The design of the requests for proposals came from ODE, Mettee said.

Though the academic distress panel met weekly from its formation until the plan was developed, that meeting frequency will likely decrease.

Mettee expects members to meet monthly and perhaps quarterly as the plan progresses.

She said all commission members have been committed to their work and want to see the city school district improve.

“I said at the beginning that, sadly, the kids have been shortchanged in Youngstown,” Mettee said. “I’m not pointing any fingers about who shortchanged them. There are excellent teachers in the Youngstown school system. There are excellent administrators in the school system. They need support.”

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