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Parents claims school grant funds wasted

November 16, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Most of a $75,000 state grant the Washington County Board of Education received last year for gifted and talented programs has not been spent, prompting complaints and questions from some parents.

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About $69,000 of the grant money remains in an account, according to Curriculum Director Frank Finan.

Paramount Elementary School parents who say the money could be used to hire another Project Challenge teacher expressed shock and disappointment to the School Board Tuesday.

"That's not only negligence. That's incompetence," Paramount PTA member Bernadette Wagner told board members. She was upset the board cut back on its gifted and talented program at nine schools, including Paramount, without tapping the money.

Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr. pledged Tuesday night to rewrite the grant if possible or spend the money in a timely manner.

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He said staff will review the distribution of the school system's 16 Project Challenge teachers, most of whom spend time at more than one school.

During a work session Tuesday morning, Bartlett said the Maryland State Board of Education gave the grant to supplement the gifted and talented program, not to hire teachers.

He provided a written statement from Carolyn Cooper, the state board's gifted and talented program specialist, who advised that "Funds awarded must be used to supplement existing services ... and in no way used to supplant said services."

Cooper did not return a telephone call Tuesday.

PTA secretary Roxanne Ober said other areas such as Allegheny and Frederick counties, use the same grants to partially pay salaries of teachers in their gifted and talented programs.

"We had a fairly strong statement from the state that you can rewrite this grant," Bartlett said. But there is no guarantee the proposal will be funded and the county could lose the money, he said.

Bartlett said State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told him the grant was not intended to pay salaries.

He said the money could be used to supplement the salary of a teacher hired for the gifted and talented program, but he asked the board to carefully consider taking such a step.

Once the position is created, losing the grant could mean a layoff. "If we put this in we've got to be sure," he said.

Board member Andrew Humphreys suggested waiting for the School Board's new advanced program coordinator to come on board. Donna B. Chesno was hired from Allegheny County and starts her new job Monday.

The board agreed her first task may be to solve the Project Challenge situation, a program that some say is in disarray.

"We've got 24 elementary schools out there that are not on the same page," said School Board President Edwin Hayes.

Schools use the gifted and talented teachers differently, and Hayes opposed using the grant to hire a teacher until a systemwide approach is developed. "You're asking us to jump in a car with no tires on it," he told the two Paramount parents.

The School Board redistributed its Project Challenge teachers in June, allocating the most teacher time to schools with the most students. Basing the distribution on enrollment was best for the system and children overall, Bartlett said.

Five schools gained teaching time and nine lost time. No school reduced its program by more than a day's worth a week and most lost half a day. The net effect was an overall redistribution of six days' time.

Williamsport, which used to have a Project Challenge teacher three days a week, now has one full time. Paramount had a full-time teacher last year and this year its teacher goes elsewhere every Tuesday. Most schools share a teacher.

Paramount parents concerned about the reduction last month asked the board to reinstate that school's teacher to full-time status. The school has the highest percentage of identified gifted and talented students and therefore the most need, they said.

The parents investigated the grant, discovering that its expiration date was Dec. 15. They also found the board did not apply for the same grant this year.

Bartlett defended the inaction. "We hadn't spent this $75,000, so I didn't see the need to apply for another $75,000," he said.

Finan said he planned to use the remaining $69,000 for teacher training and curriculum development.

The advanced placement coordinator position had been open since July and the board had difficulty filling it. Since the job deals with programs like Project Challenge, Bartlett said that if that post had been filled sooner more of the grant money would have been spent.

Ober said hiring another teacher would help restore time to at least seven schools.

"That is as much equity as I can offer in an inequitable situation," she said. "Let's be innovative and fight for Project Challenge."

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