Nineteen elementary schools are losing $8.7 million in federal Title I funds this year because the Omaha school district has shifted how it distributes the money for high-poverty schools.
That means those schools had to find new sources of funding or lose some of their teachers, paraprofessionals and literacy coaches. It also put at risk some small-group, after-school tutoring for struggling students.
The change comes partly because fewer dollars are coming from the federal government. Plus, the Omaha Public Schools must move more Title I funding to middle and high schools where student poverty has increased.
The newly eligible Omaha South High, for example, received $1.4 million this year.
Title I funds are used to boost achievement at schools that have missed federal testing benchmarks and teach larger percentages of low-income students.
The district previously had acknowledged that Title I dollars to elementary schools would decrease for the 2013-14 school year. A presentation scheduled for tonight's school board meeting will outline the winners and losers and explain the district's revamped formula for allocating its shrinking pool of federal funds.
Seventy-two staff positions were affected, though ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, said none of those staff members lost jobs. They were reassigned to other schools or positions. In some cases, principals found other funding sources to keep the staff members in place.
“They're now in the position they may still be doing those things, but having to do it through other means,” Kehrberg said.
Sunny Slope Elementary School Principal Melissa Comine said she was nervous when she learned her school would lose all $115,000 of its Title I funding. Those dollars paid for three full-time and three part-time paraprofessionals and after-school tutoring for low-income students. She found the money with state aid and OPS's per-pupil equity funding, so none of her staff lost their jobs.
“I was very fortunate to have the money I needed to sustain everything at Sunny Slope,” she said.
There was one casualty. The school ended its tutoring program for Title I students. The school may lean on local nonprofits for tutoring.
Federal rules require OPS to provide Title I funding to schools where at least 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. But the district has had enough of Title I funding to send money to schools that met much lower poverty thresholds.
In addition, an influx of stimulus spending several years ago allowed OPS to disburse funds to elementary schools with poverty levels at 40 percent or higher.
This year, total Title I funding dropped $2 million, to $22 million. Now only elementary schools with poverty levels of 70 percent or higher are receiving Title I funds.
“The decision had to be made,” Kehrberg said. “We don't have enough funds to cover all our schools, so which schools are you going to fund?”
Challenges remain at the 19 elementary schools no longer eligible for the funds. Their poverty levels may fall below 70 percent, but just barely: 69 percent of Masters Elementary School students qualified for federal lunch subsidies last year.
Beals Elementary will no longer receive Title I funds for extra instruction or staffing even though barely half its students scored proficient in reading last year.
Its math scores were even lower: 47 percent of students were deemed proficient in math — far below the 84 percent proficiency level mandated by the No Child Left Behind law. The principal at Beals did not return a call for comment.
Another impact of the move: Schools that don't receive Title I funds escape the federal sanctions that take effect when Title I schools fail to meet increasingly rigorous achievement targets. This year, under No Child Left Behind, 100 percent of students are expected to be proficient in math and reading.
Students considered proficient must demonstrate a basic understanding of state standards in core subjects, as determined through a series of state-mandated tests.
All but two of the 19 schools that lost funding missed federal targets on state tests in 2012-13. Several, including Pawnee, Sunny Slope and Prairie Wind Elementary Schools, missed those targets for four years straight.
Editor's note: And earlier version of this story incorrectly reported who did not return calls for comment.