GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 30, 2010

City gets $700k in fed school dollars

By Patrick Anderson
Staff Writer

Gloucester's share of Massachusetts' $250 million federal prize in the Obama Administration's Race to the Top competition — which spurred state education reforms this year, including expanded spending on charter schools — has been pegged at $413,347 over four years.

Combined with a $332,402 federal stimulus boost for teacher salaries announced last week, the contest money, which can only be used to pay for state-approved school innovation projects, should provide at least some relief for Gloucester's school budget, which is forecast to see significant cuts over the next few years.

The Race to the Top dollars were apportioned to public school districts and charter schools across the state based on the severity of their problems and their numbers of low-income students.

By comparison, the Manchester Essex Regional School District was awarded $62,179 over four years in Race to the Top money, North Shore Regional Vocational School $62,348 and Essex Agricultural and Technical High School $52,901.

The only public school serving Cape Ann that didn't get any Race to the Top money is Rockport, whose leaders decided to forego federal dollars from the program and focus on innovation measures they are putting in place with private grant money.

"I just thought we could not take on any more projects," Rockport Superintendent Susan King said Monday. "We want to stay focused on what we already have. I think we will benefit in the long run by not being signed up as a district.

"The funding is really being used toward overhauling failing schools," King said.

To become eligible for Race to the Top money, a school district or charter school needed to sign a pledge to use the money for — and work with the state toward — goals such as increasing teacher performance evaluations, turning around the lowest achieving schools and making greater use of student test data to shape teaching.

To become eligible, each district needed the endorsement of its superintendent, School Committee chairman and head of the local teachers union.

According to King, the Rockport teachers union shared the district's concerns about the Race to the Top strings, and the Rockport School Committee only briefly discussed it and never took a vote on the memorandum.

Out of 393 school districts and charter schools in Massachusetts, Rockport joined 118 others in passing on the money.

As expected, the districts who most directly benefited from Race to the Top were the systems in the state's largest cities. Boston got $31.8 million, Springfield $13.7 million, Worcester $6.8 million and Lawrence $5.6 million.

The Race to the Top program was created by the Obama administration, using $4.35 billion from the 2009 economic stimulus bill to pump resources back into schools and reward states that take on aggressive school reform policies — such as increasing access to charter schools and reorganizing failing schools.

Massachusetts failed in the first round of Race to the Top, where only two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded money, but joined nine other states securing money in the second round.

While the Race to the Top contest generated the most attention, Massachusetts' share of another stimulus program gave state officials another chance last week to divvy up money to local communities, this one with more immediate benefit to Cape Ann schools.

Thanks to the $10 billion federal Education Jobs Fund, of which Massachusetts will get $204 million, Gloucester will see an additional $332,402 added to its state aid this year. Manchester Essex will see an additional $100,662 and Rockport will get $75,965.

The Education Jobs money can only be used on either maintaining, restoring or adding to teacher payrolls and is designed to make up for some of the cuts to state Chapter 70 school aid to cities and towns in 2009 and 2010.

The federal money from both programs could be critical to the Gloucester Public Schools, which are expected to eventually see a significant chunk of its state aid diverted over the next several years to fund the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or panderson@gloucestertimes.com.