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School Surprise? State Finds Stimulus Put to Good Use

Review determines that $1.6 billion in federal funds has largely gone to staffing, training and technology, just as intended.

As word went out last year that New Jersey’s public schools would receive more than $1 billion million in federal stimulus funding, so did the warning that the state would keep a close eye on the money.

Meetings were held with local officials laying out the rules on how and where the money could be spent, and stipulating the vast amount of paperwork required for every dollar.

A year later, the state has completed its first 45 reviews of districts receiving the bulk of the funding, and by and large, the news is positive, state officials said.

“We’re mostly seeing people doing what they should be doing,” said Robert Cicchino, a former State Police commander who leads the state Department of Education’s compliance division.

That’s not to say there are no problems, as teams visiting districts such as Paterson, Pleasantville and Union City raised questions as to internal controls and accounting practices in those districts.

Other large school systems such as Newark and Jersey City – together receiving more than $200 million in stimulus money -- also have yet to be completed.

But so far, fears that large sums would be misspent haven’t been realized.

“Where they’re not, the money is recovered,” Cicchino said. “But the money is out there and serving a good purpose.”

Tracking $1.6 Billion

Those good purposes include targeted areas such as staffing, teacher training and technology -- lots of technology. Tens of millions have gone to the purchase of computers, software and other items.

“I wish I had stock in Smartboards,” Cicchino said, only half in jest.

Cicchino’s 39-person office last year was given the task of completing the reviews that would be required for the state to receive the stimulus money.

Four teams of accountants, program experts and educators were drawn from throughout the education department, and 90 school districts were chosen based on a number of factors, together representing about 60 percent of all stimulus money distributed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

In all, more than $1.6 billion in ARRA money was distributed across virtually every district in the state.

More than $1 billion of that total was applied to districts’ overall state funding in 2009-10, largely allowing them to escape aid cuts that ultimately will come this year under Gov. Chris Christie’s budget for 2010-11.

The rest was focused on special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and on those for low-income students under the federal Title I program.

They included programs like the one in Union City, where more than $4 million in new Title I money was applied to additional professional development for teachers, coaches in language arts and math, and added planning time for teachers to work together during the day.

Some Money Misspent

But in a review completed this spring, Cicchino’s staff also found some maintenance staff salaries were assigned to the ARRA stabilization money, against federal guidelines. Or that some of those Smartboard purchases were made without public bid, which also was required.

In Paterson, a state-operated district, more than $4 million was spent to hire 45 in-class support teachers, as well as literacy supervisors. More than 150 teachers received training for after-school programs, and new parent programs were launched, including a “mobile parent involvement unit” that would go into the community.

But the state’s investigators found that lacking. “It did not appear that the mobile parent unit was being used as effectively as possible,” the report read. “When asked, the district was not certain exactly where it was, and no specific plan was provided for the activities and purposes for which it was intended.”

Pleasantville received more than $10.6 million in ARRA money, about $1.8 million for Title I and IDEA programs, including plans for a new READ 180 literacy curriculum and specialists for special needs children.

But the state’s review questioned if there was ever any follow-through on that plan.

“The district claims READ 180 will be instituted in special education classrooms, but no formal plans have been implemented as of the monitoring visit. Pre-testing will be completed,” read the review, completed in March.

“During the interviews, there was only a wish list of items,” it continued. “The IDEA director did not have a formal plan for spending the monies.”

Efforts yesterday to reach the district’s superintendent, Gloria Grantham, were unsuccessful.

More Districts to Be Reviewed

Cicchino said the work has only begun, as each of the reports for the first 45 districts is followed up and corrective action plans often required. Another 45 districts will undergo the same monitoring in the coming year.

Of the ARRA money, Cicchino’s division itself received about $900,000 to help pay for the monitoring, and he said it has sufficed.

But he added that the workload is unprecedented, and a request went into state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler this week for not only some per diem help for the coming year, but also long-term funding to keep the monitoring in place.

“Once all the ARRA money goes away, what are we going to do in those districts? Just go away, too?” he said. “My suggestion is we put these systems in place for the long term.”

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