The Rochester City School District has been awarded $1.2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve efficiency. But acceptance of the money by the Board of Education is no sure thing because board members have expressed concerns about privatization.
The district was one of four nationwide to receive a $1.2 million "Smart Spending" grant from the Gates Foundation, which provides 70 percent of the funds and requires districts to match 30 percent.
Board member Mary Adams said she was looking forward to a finance committee meeting on Thursday to learn more about the grant and its effect on the district. But while she is reserving judgment until she knows more, Adams has expressed concerns about privatization in the past.
"I plan on attending the meeting with a skeptical eye," she said. "There are a lot of concerns I have when it comes to privatization. I'm interested to hear more about what the grant involves."
Some of the large nationwide grant-making organizations-including the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation-have pushed school districts toward an agenda of privatization that critics find worrisome.
School district officials describe the grant as a way to cut unnecessary spending and filter more funding toward education. William Ansbrow, RCSD's chief financial officer, said the 30 percent local match for the Gates Foundation grant will come from a previous efficiency grant.
The Gates Foundation grant will be used to create more efficiency in the district's budgeting process and a multiyear financial planning process, he said.
"To be effective, that's what you need to do," Ansbrow said, "to take a long-term financial look so you're not surprised by a future financial forecast. We're using a portion of that funding to step back and design a structure that will be replicated year after year."
The program was praised by Malik Evans, president of the school board, who said he does not see the grant as an attempt by the Gates Foundation to push an agenda on the district.
"There will be questions about it, but as I said before, this has nothing to do with the Gates Foundation coming in and telling us how to run an academic institution," Evans said. "This is a grant that helps us to maximize out-of-classroom resources so we can spend more money on things that affect our students.
"There are so many areas we can find more efficiencies, like transportation and payroll, so we can put that money back into the classrooms."
The vote on the new grant, which could take place July 25 if the finance committee gives approval first, comes just as the school board ended another program initiated by the Gates Foundation.
In 2010, Rochester was one of nine cities to agree on a collaboration project between traditional and charter schools, a program supported by the Gates Foundation. In the program, districts committed to replicating high-performing models of traditional and charter public schools and closing down schools not serving students well.
The compacts involved district superintendents and charter school leaders in an attempt to address equity issues. Together the leaders developed a shared approach to school enrollment and co-developed measures of effective teaching.
In June the school board voted to terminate the district's participation and required that any future program committing RCSD resources to charter schools outside of statutory agreements receive approval of the full board of education. After the resolution, the board returned $27,000 of unused grant funding to the Gates Foundation.
The district has tried to reduce expenses through cuts and improved efficiencies, with the savings being directed into academic programs.
In March the district announced it had received a $4.5 million bonus from the state over three years as one of four districts statewide to win competitive education grants for management efficiency. The district was noted for achieving $9.5 million in cost reductions, including reduced use of contracted services, elimination of a strategic planning office and consolidation of the staff in the central office.
The funds are planned to support endeavors including a new textbook management system and expanded-day learning for more students in 2013-14.
When the district announced the state grant in March, it also noted that the Gates Foundation had invited RCSD to apply for a grant to support educational priorities and use the district's budget process to improve use of resources. Four other districts nationwide were asked to apply.
In the United States, the Gates Foundation seeks to ensure that people-especially those with the fewest resources-have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life, the organization states. Based in Seattle, it is led by CEO Jeff Raikes and Co-Chairman William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.
Adams said she wants to study the grant carefully before taking action.
"Those philanthropists have very aggressively shaped education policy, and whenever we are asked to approve money to support those projects, we have to ask a lot of careful questions," she said.
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