Frustrated by months of seeking answers without any substantive response, a prominent local education reform advocate is now publicly making inquiries about federal grant money raised with the help of her organization that she believes was received by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) last year.
Kelly Kane, the president of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation, has contacted school district officials in an attempt to track the funds allocated to the district through a grant written by two foundation colleagues, Forouzan Faridian and Susan Way-Smith.
“Susan was an experienced grant writer and a former chief administrative officer of the Urban Education Partnership, and she and Forouzan did all of the work on this grant,” said Kane. “They both put an extensive amount of effort into writing these grants.”
The foundation president said that her organization had secured nearly $1 million in planning money for Westchester High School.
“It was also used by LAUSD to win similar planning grants for nine other high schools, as well as the follow-up funds of over $3 million per school for the implementation of these plans,” Kane said.
The foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved academic conditions in Westchester and Playa del Rey public schools, decided to look into procuring federal funding to assist in the planning of the creation of an educational reform effort after the former superintendent of LAUSD’s Local District Three, Grace Strauther, allegedly missed several deadlines for securing federal grants, according to Kane.
Westchester schools are within the boundaries of Local District Three.
Kane’s group of volunteers has focused its attention on Orville Wright Middle School and Westchester High School, where, although scholastic progress has been cited recently, the high school still ranks among the bottom fifth in academic performance among California schools.
The grant concerned establishing the planning of “small learning communities,” or SCLs, which are “schools within schools” that divide students in large schools like Westchester High into smaller groups that integrate core curriculum with personalized instruction. This education model has been implement- ed at other school districts around the country.
Larry Tash, director of the district’s Office of School Redesign, said that he was unfamiliar with the grant Kane spoke of.
“The only grants that I work with are United States Education Department grants,” Tash replied when asked about the subsidy in question.
According to the district, a U.S. Department of Education grant, which is a five-year endowment, was awarded in fiscal year 2006-07.
“[Westchester principal Anita Barner], Mrs. Way-Smith and other community members took the lead in writing the grant application for Westchester High School,” Tash acknowledged.
Ten district schools were involved in writing individual grants, but school district officials streamlined the process into one application because the endowment is awarded as a block grant.
“The district looks at the strongest points of all of the applications in order to make it into a winning grant,” said Marilyn Williams, coordinator of the Office of Redesign.
Representatives from Local District Three also participated in the selection process and chose the high school to be a recipient of the grant.
The Department of Education awarded the district slightly more than $10 million last year, of which Westchester received approximately $800,000, said Tash.
“The district distributes the money to the schools, and school administrators can see how much is in the account after it has been allotted,” he said. A school official may not be able to see that entire amount that has been allocated, only “the amount that the particular school has asked for,” Tash added.
Ted Nelson, director of the Grant Assistance Unit of the school district, said he was not familiar with any grant other than the approximately $800,000 subsidy that the high school received last year.
“I haven’t heard anything about this particular grant [that Kane was tracking],” Nelson said.
Federal grants like the five-year subsidy that Westchester High received are disbursed to the district in two parts, Tash said.
“At the end of a three-year period, the federal government does an evaluation to determine if anyone will lose money for the remaining two years,” he explained. “This is to ensure more accountability of how the grants are being used.
“To date, no school has lost any money [for the last two years of a grant] at the district,” Tash stated.
Subsequent to Kane’s inquiries, on August 29th Westchester High sent a letter to parents and interested community members detailing its plans for Westchester High that included the description of a grant that the school received in 2006 and the decision to begin implementing the concept of small learning communities.
The letter states that an initial request of $950,000 over five years was made by district officials, but only $725,000 was allocated to Westchester High.
“As is often the case in competitive grant application processes, the school was awarded the grant, but not the total amount requested,” school officials wrote.
In addition, there are federal Department of Education regulations that prohibit allocation of funds to community groups like Kane’s Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation, according to Westchester High administrators.
“This was not known at the time when Way-Smith advocated for this type of expenditure,” the letter states.
“This grant is really important to us, and we’re really happy to have it,” said school board member Marlene Canter, whose district includes Westchester schools.
After administrative overhead costs and additional money reprogrammed for the budgets of all of the schools, the final budget for use at Westchester High is approximately $700,000.
Canter, like Tash and Nelson, is unaware of the education foundation’s claims of grants that have not been accounted for.
“I don’t have any knowledge of the grant that Kelly is referring to, but I do think that it’s great that her group was involved in writing this grant,” she said.
Canter says she thinks that Kane could have received some “misinformation” regarding the grant that she is questioning. “And I think that’s really unfortunate,” she said.
Kane dismissed the district’s letter, calling it a “condescending smoke screen.”
She believes that the Westchester grant that district officials refer to is not the same allotment that she is tracking, and because of the school district’s inability to explain where the grant money that her colleagues helped acquire is, she is reluctant to pursue future endowments for Westchester High.
“It would be unwise of our volunteer organization, with its limited resources and funds, to participate in any more grants with an organization that cannot make these grant budgets transparent,” Kane asserted. “We’re not asking for gratitude; we’re just asking for honesty.”
Barner had not returned phone calls as The Argonaut went to press.