Major changes could be coming to education for Manatee’s Title I schools

Yoselin Rodriguez boards the bus to return home after a day of learning about animals and reading at Bashaw Elementary School’s Camp RISE summer program for the district’s Title I students.
Yoselin Rodriguez boards the bus to return home after a day of learning about animals and reading at Bashaw Elementary School’s Camp RISE summer program for the district’s Title I students.

A tarantula crawling across her head was the highlight of the day for rising second-grader Yoselin Rodriguez.

“It was so soft,” Yoselin said before boarding the bus to head home Wednesday after learning about animals and reading at Bashaw Elementary School. “It just tickled me.”

Yoseline is one of roughly 1,200 students attending Manatee County’s summer programs for the county’s underprivileged students. Camp RISE for elementary school children and Camp SNAP for middle school students prepare low-income children for the upcoming school year through field trips and classroom learning.

While Yoseline let the spider crawl across her head, about 300 miles north state lawmakers convened for the first day of a special legislative session in Tallahassee. A controversial education bill awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, and if the bill becomes law it would reshape the way Manatee County spends money on students like Yoseline.

While House Bill 7069 has attracted critics mostly for the favor it seems to give to charter schools over traditional public schools, Manatee School District Superintendent Diana Greene said her greatest concern was new restrictions on how districts can use Title I funding.

“My No. 1 concern is what they are going to do with Title I,” Greene said. “There are some things in there that will really put us in a difficult situation.”

The bill, negotiated behind closed doors by House Speaker Richard Corcoron, Senate President Joe Negron and Scott, would change which schools qualify for Title I money and place new restrictions on how creative the districts can get with the money.

The federal government distributes Title I dollars to districts to use on additional resources for children. Manatee County received $12.3 million in 2014-15, $15.6 million in 2015-16 and anticipated receiving $13.8 million in 2016-17, according to the district’s 2016-17 budget.

In Manatee, Title I funding currently is distributed among 15 elementary schools, four middle schools, Bayshore High School and five charter schools. Each of those schools have at least 75 percent of the student body qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. HB 7069 would require funds to go to schools with 58 percent or more students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch.

That means 10 Manatee schools not currently classified as Title I would receive the classification and their share of the funds, but it does not mean the district would receive additional funding, said Megan Johnson, the district’s Title I coordinator.

“When you are utilizing one pot of money, and if that pot doesn’t increase, that will dilute that pot of money very quickly,” Greene said. “The new schools coming into Title I, it may be a wonderful thing for them, but the schools that have been receiving those dollars, it will be massive cuts for them.”

Greene declined to share the list of schools that would become Title I schools if HB7069 became law.

There is language within the bill that would allow districts to maintain their 2016-17 levels, but Elena Garcia, the district’s director of federal programs, said lawmakers were discussing that caveat as if it were a one-year deal.

“That’s a little point of confusion for the entire state,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the bill also would require districts to give all of the money to its Title I schools, rather than withholding some of the funds for district-level initiatives.

Garcia said the majority of Title I funds go directly to schools, which use the bulk of the money to hire additional teachers and specialists. But Manatee County can hold on to some of the money to use for district-wide initiatives that benefit all Title I schools. In Manatee, Title I funds have been used for the summer-reading and science programs and to hire graduation-enhancement technicians who work closely with students to boost attendance and graduation rates.

If the district couldn’t use Title I funds on special initiatives, it would mean the summer-reading and science programs likely would be canceled, said Johnson.

“I don’t want to use the word loosely, but to lose this program would be devastating,” said Lisa Engram, a Manatee Elementary School teacher who is working at Bashaw’s RISE camp for the summer.

“It’s so valuable to these little ones,” said Lynne Sperko, a second-grade teacher at Oneco Elementary and RISE summer instructor. “A lot of times their parents are working, so they do nothing over the summer. In the fall they have fallen one or two reading levels back.”

The special session will reconvene Thursday morning.

Ryan McKinnon: 941-745-7027, @JRMcKinnon