Board to skip federal grant

ALBANY, Ga. -- Potential funding questions, possible firings of teachers who didn't meet academic benchmarks, guaranteed dismissals of longtime high school principals and other concerns likely caused the Dougherty County Board of Education to decide by a razor thin margin to not apply for a federal School Improvement Grant.

Board members voted 4-3 in a phone poll Friday afternoon to not apply the grant. James Bush, Velvet Riggins, David Maschke and Milton Griffin were the board members who voted against grant participation, and Michael Windom, Emily Jean McAfee and Anita Williams-Brown voted in favor.

Windom and Williams-Brown recommended applying for the grant Thursday as members of the board's Instructional Accountability Committee following a 90-minute information session with school officials.

If the Dougherty County Board of Education had been awarded the three-year, possibly $2 million per year grant for Albany and Dougherty high schools, the DCSS would have been required to remove the principals at each of those schools -- Sheila Marshall at Albany High and Horace Reid Jr. at Dougherty High.

Not being able to opt out of the grant after it was awarded by the state or if funding wasn't sustained throughout the three years of the grant were two of the stumbling blocks to submitting for the grant. Being forced to release teachers who didn't meet performance expectations outlined in the grant and paying at least $300,000 total to fund the grant after three years also caused some concern for board members and school officials.

The school system submitted to the state a request of $1.5 million for Albany High for one year, and a $1.385 million request for Dougherty Comprehensive to address academic needs.

The amount of money available to state schools from the U.S.

Department of Education had changed since the grant was announced earlier this spring. It was $122,815,607, but the state needed to withhold 25 percent of that for carryover, reducing the amount of money available for the state to $89 million. The minimum grant reward could have been as small as $50,000 and as high as $2 million.

"I was open and interested as long as we knew what the deal was before making any commitment," Maschke said. "I voted no because there were too many unanswered questions, too much of a chance for financial obligations that could not be identified at this time, especially when the future financial condition of the school system is questionable.

"I thought the program certainly had some good points that could help student achievement, but the board and the administration have to act responsibly. Some of my concerns were that there were no guarantees in what the state would provide in year one and, in years two or three, there would be no funding at all, which could mean that the local taxpayers would have to fund an additional $2.9 million for years two and three, in addition to which the local taxpayers would also have to fund $300,000 for each subsequent year beyond the first three years."

McAfee, who voiced concerns about the strings attached to the grant during Wednesday's lengthy discussion during the board meeting, ended up voting for the grant because of the recommendation it received from the Instructional Accountability Committee.

"I thought about it some more," she said of changing her mind. "But, I thought it would give us some resources and expectations, but I was very nervous about those resources (and that they) would be coming, but they answered enough questions to make me for it.

"The school administration wouldn't give a recommendation, but I think that's because we're in the middle of a transition (with the new superintendent), and so that's why we're the decision makers," she added. "But I'm not surprised that it didn't pass. ... It changed so much in the evolution of it. It was a no-brainer at one point and then it was more risky. Then, I supported the committee and the thought of resources, which might be very helpful in enabling these schools to succeed."

The questionable financing of the grant wasn't the only concern for Maschke, who also weighed the grant's "potential benefits against the risk to the system." However, he did like how the grant tried to tie in monetary incentives for teachers who met academic benchmarks established by the state on standardized test scores and graduation rates, which the Georgia Department of Education told Dougherty County school system officials needed to be at least 80 percent for teacher incentives of $1,200-$1,500 to be awarded. The percentage improvement for graduation rates would have increased by 5 percent each subsequent year.

"The board and the administration should address improvement of student achievement at all levels and develop a responsible rewards plan for those teachers and administrators that are leading students to higher levels," Maschke said. "We need to clarify the expectations of teachers and school administrators and those that exceed the expectations should receive additional compensation or reward."