Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sweeping Grant Funds Into General Fund Budgets

Something unusual is happening this year as a result of the fiscal situation being faced by organizations across the county. I have experienced it directly as it has affected school districts in California. I suspect it has also affected folks in other states.

Here's what happened here in the Golden State....

School districts received permission to "sweep" funds from a whole bunch of categorical programs into their general budgets to allow for maximum flexibility in the use of those funds during this period of fiscal hardship. It sounds OK so far, huh? The concept sold to school districts, school boards, and their communities around the state is that the former system of categorical funding was inefficient and based on state and federal priorities, rather than local priorities (which, for the most part, is true).

The new rule would allow local districts to establish their own priorities and lump all that money together to be spent in a way that supports local needs. Sounds great.

Except for one thing.

Some state competitive grant programs were lumped in with that list of categorical funds that could be swept.

Schools that had worked hard to pull community partners together, plan programs, write successful grant proposals, and implement successful programs came to work one day this spring only to learn that their school district administrators had chosen to sweep those funds out from under them mid-year so the money could be used to help back fill the overall district budget deficit.

Even worse, in some school districts, district administrators have begun sweeping grant funds for programs that are not allowed to be swept, conveniently assuming that it will all be forgiven later because of the hardships that most public agencies are facing now.

Originally, this new "sweeping" rule required that districts hold public hearings to get input from the public on whether these funds should be swept or not and, if so, how the money should best be spent.....but that all was changed at some point, allowing district administrators to make these decisions behind closed doors. The decisions get approved at school board meetings without clear public notice (hasn't the generic term "budget modifications" (or something like it) been on every school board agenda for months now?).

So, what's wrong with this?

I won't even talk about how crazy it is to sweep money saying that the district has other priorities when the district said in the grant applications themselves that the plans in the grants were district priorities.

Aside from the whole issue of making major decisions about changing how public money is spent without a meaningful opportunity for the public to comment, this practice damages relationships with community partners and discourages innovation in education. Here's how.....

One of these programs that is being swept is the School Community Violence Prevention (SCVP) program (and this is only one example, there are others). When a district applied for these funds on behalf of a school, it was required to pull together a community partnership. That partnership had to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment and design a plan to leverage community resources to address a particular school-related violence issue. Local police departments, probation departments, mental health agencies, non-profit organizations, educators, and parents all came to the table in good faith to help the schools develop a plan for the school community that could address the problem.

Now the funds are being swept without any consultation with the community partners who made it possible for the district to get the money in the first place.

It's disrespectful. It represents an animal-like dog-eat-dog approach to dealing with tough problems. It's just wrong.

But there's more.

One of the problems we have in education is that people who need money to implement creative solutions to tough problems in the schools have to apply for competitive grants to do so. It's hard work, taken on by busy and dedicated professionals who simply don't have the time to do it....but they do it anyway. Most others in the field don't make the time. They lament the problems, and try to keep sticking their fingers in the holes in the dam hoping that their temporary solutions may work. They shake their heads at those who go the extra mile and pursue additional funding.

Now they - the ones who were not innovative, the ones who didn't take the extra time or make the effort - lose very little in the budget debacle , while the innovators are essentially punished for their innovation.

The chilling effect on the whole system is that this single "sweeping" action will discourage innovation in the future at a time when our youth most need people who are willing to do things differently, to step out of "business as usual" and implement evidence-based programs that really work. The system is rewarding "falling in line and letting the folks at the district office handle it" (by the way, how scary is THAT????), while those who were actually doing it, and making a difference for kids, are punished.

And yes, it's happening in my own community, too, and I'm just sick about it.

The worst part about this is that it's happening under the radar and whenever educators speak up about it, they are told to sit down and be quiet - that it's all justified because of the budget crisis.

I strongly disagree. I completely understand that times are tough and school boards have very tough decisions to make. Programs and services have to be cut. As a small business owner, I have felt the shake of the economic earthquake. I know how hard it is to lay people off. As an individual and a parent, I know what it feels like to have to cut back and to not be able to give my kids as much as I could last year. It's hard. It hurts. But we teach children that it's not OK do wrong things just because you are desperate. Stealing is wrong, even if you don't have enough money to pay the mortgage.

The freedom to sweep these fund also means that school boards have the right to choose NOT to sweep them.

At minimum, our school boards need to ask harder questions, demand that the community be heard on the topic (in a meaningful way, with reasonable publicized notice). Then, if our elected and trusted officials choose to make the decision to do this, at least it has been made properly - not in a back room by people who were never elected by the public and who did not participate in the community process that brought the funds to the district to begin with.

Our elected officials should expect and demand more from those who work for us. We all should.

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Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.