Nine area school districts won't 'Race to the Top'

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010

A majority of Alle-Kiski Valley area school districts will not be part of the state's effort to get a share of federal stimulus funds.

Nine area districts will not be included in the state's application for federal money from the "Race to the Top" competition.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Race to the Top is designed to encourage and reward states that are creating conditions for education innovation and reform and achieving significant improvement in student outcomes.

States also are to receive money that are implementing ambitious plans in four core education reform areas: tough academic standards, recruiting and keeping effective teachers, tracking student performance with refined data collection methods and turning around the lowest performing schools.

But a lack of time to review the program, concerns about loss of local control and that districts are already doing parts of the program were among the reasons some local districts cited for not applying for a share of the money.

"They didn't give us enough time," said Apollo-Ridge board President Greg Primm. "People are generally suspicious of the government in the first place and that doesn't help when they try to do something so quickly — especially something of this magnitude."

Most of the goals of Race to the Top are part of the Fox Chapel Area School District's strategic and continuous improvement plans, spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski said.

"We believe it is in the best interest of the district to continue to focus on the process we already have in place," she said in a statement. "We also do not believe that the amount of money Fox Chapel Area would be eligible to receive would be sufficient to allow us to expand what we are currently doing without adding significant dollars from the district budget."

Among the six districts that did sign on, officials touted the benefits of receiving funding to improve student achievement and meet state and federal goals, and linking the training and evaluation of teachers to how students perform.

"The bottom line to me and us is, it's an effort by the federal government to encourage schools to improve academic achievement and give schools money to accomplish that," said New Kensington-Arnold Superintendent George Batterson. "It comes with stipulations. You have to do things. It's actually good stuff."

In choosing to participate, the Armstrong School District had in mind the student achievement goals all districts will be required to meet by 2014 under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"The district sees Race to the Top as an opportunity to make good use of resources from the state and federal government to support our ongoing reform efforts," spokesman Jon Szish said. "Whether or not districts apply for the money, they're still going to be held accountable for the results in 2014. It makes sense to apply for the funds."

Pennsylvania could receive up to $400 million in the program's first round of funding. A total of $4.35 billion is available nationwide, part of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act economic stimulus package.

School districts were required to submit by Wednesday a memorandum of understanding to the state Department of Education. The document was to have been signed by the district superintendent, school board president and teachers union president.

The Plum School District turned in an application missing the signature of the union president, according to district spokeswoman Dawn Lynn Check.

South Butler County Superintendent Frank Prazenica said he signed and submitted an application for his district, but was told it would not be eligible because it was not signed by the board president or teachers union president.

Memorandums missing any of the three signatures will not be considered valid and will not be part of the state's application to the federal government, said state Education Department spokesman Michael Race.

State applications are due to the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday.

Half of the money received will be used at the state level, while the other half will go to the participating districts.

If it receives funding, Pennsylvania has several programs that will benefit all 500 districts.

"Things will be available to all students, regardless of whether your school has signed up or not," Race said. "These are all projects we've identified as being beneficial to student achievement."

Deer Lakes Superintendent Dean Casello, whose district is not participating, said it may reconsider the program in the second round, which he said would be free of the concern of not having enough time to review it.

"Hopefully we'll have an opportunity to look at that more in detail and understand and learn the details of the expectations that come with the grant so we can make a better decision," he said.

Additional Information:

Race to the Top

School districts had to submit a memorandum of understanding to the state by Wednesday to participate in the federally funded 'Race to the Top' grant program.

Alle-Kiski Valley districts that will be participating:

• Allegheny Valley

• Armstrong

• Burrell

• Kiski Area

• New Kensington-Arnold

• Riverview

Districts not participating:

• Apollo-Ridge

• Deer Lakes

• Fox Chapel Area

• Franklin Regional

• Freeport Area

• Highlands

• Leechburg Area

• Plum

• South Butler County

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