FL Catholic schools want look at district’s distribution of federal $

After an unexpected funding shortfall, Florida Catholic schools want state education leaders to review how one of the state’s biggest school districts distributed federal dollars earmarked for needy children in public and private schools.

untitledThe request was made last week after Catholic schools in northeast Florida learned the Title I funds they rely on to provide services to low-income students throughout the school year will be gone by month’s end. The 125,000-student Duval County School District, the sixth-largest in Florida, is responsible for passing a portion of the funds on to private schools.

“We were pretty much caught off-guard,’’ Patricia Bronsard, schools superintendent for the Diocese of St. Augustine, which includes Duval, told redefinED Monday. “We serve a pretty diverse population … the very population that can’t afford to have this disruption.”

Patricia Bronsard
Patricia Bronsard

Now the diocese schools and other private schools – about 30 to 40 in all – are scrambling to shore up those services so children who count on additional tutoring and other programs won’t have to go without, Bronsard said.

Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the Florida Times-Union his district has done nothing wrong. He pointed to a change in how the funds were spent in district schools as the reason for the shortfall. He estimated the lost funds total about $580,000.

Vitti could not be reached Monday for comment.

Duval County School Board member Jason Fischer said he thought the timing of the notice was unfortunate, but he’s not sure who’s at fault and awaits an internal review.

“I do think we all have the obligation to work together,’’ he said of public and private schools. “I don’t know where the responsibility lies (for the late notice). Everybody should know at the beginning of the year what the expectations are.’’

Bronsard wants the money restored and the Florida Department of Education to investigate why the district waited so late in the school year to notify private schools. She also asked the state to verify that the district’s calculation is correct.

The state cited Duval in 2011 for improper use of Title I funds. It found Duval had violated federal law for three years by using $2.7 million in Title I funding to pay teachers’ salaries in Title I schools so the district would comply with a constitutional mandate for smaller classes. The state ordered the district to restore the funding.

DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said two department officials overseeing federal programs have reached out to Duval in response to the complaints. Both are out-of-state this week at a conference.

Catholic school officials said they want to make sure appropriate processes are in place so all schools, public and private, get their fair share of much-needed funds.

“Our hope is that the county and state are taking a fresh look at whatever federal safeguards were in place in the months before the school year,’’ said James Herzog of the Florida Catholic Conference, which represents 237 Catholic schools. “We want to see if those safeguards were met. This needs to be an ongoing conversation, not a one-and-done.’’