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Advocates want District to use unspent federal funds

They want more bilingual assistants hired. The surplus may be $1.2 million

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School District has for years carried surpluses of a million dollars or more in unspent funds from the federal aid program designated for immigrant and English language learner (ELL) students – and has continued to do so even as advocacy groups pleaded for more services, a Notebook investigation has revealed.

The District last fall received its latest annual grant of more than $3 million from Title III, the federal program that aids immigrants and ELLs. As of this June 30, nine months into the grant year, $2.2 million of that grant was still unspent, according to a District financial report provided to the Notebook.

Officials now project that at least $1.2 million of the funds will remain at the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30, when a new grant will be awarded.

“Shame on them for crying poverty and cutting services while sitting on unspent funds,” said Regan Cooper of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. Last May, Cooper appeared before the School Reform Commission to ask whether the District had a “carryover” of Title III that could be used to expand services. At that time, District officials differed over whether Title III funds were fully committed.

According to a District budget official, the fluctuating amount of the Title III awards from year to year has caused some hesitancy to expand services that may not be sustainable.

But newly appointed Deputy for Teaching and Learning Linda Chen, who now oversees Title III, said the size of the surplus merits examination. “We need to take a closer look at how to maximize the services,” she said.

Under federal law, school districts have two years to spend each grant without forfeiting the funds. In the 2007-08 year, the District spent $3.3 million in Title III funds, but most of that was paid out of the prior year’s grant, leaving a large surplus at the start of this school year.

But this fall, according to William Higgins of the District’s budget office, the District is anticipating a $700,000 cut in its Title III grant to $2.3 million. Its surplus will buffer the effect of the funding cut.

Higgins pointed out that the District is in compliance with grant requirements and has never had to return or forfeit unspent dollars. He said Philadelphia’s history of carrying over funds goes back to the first Title III grant in 2002, when grant funds were delivered late in the year. He pointed out that Title III spending is limited by restrictions that require the funds to be spent only on “supplementary” services.

Besides using its current Title III funds to pay for 16 of its bilingual counselor assistant positions and four other language specialists, the District designated the money for professional development, books and materials, summer camps for English language learners, parent hotlines, a telephone translation service, and programs for parents.

Cooper and other advocates argued that the surplus of Title III funds can and should be spent in a timely way to provide other needed services to immigrant families.

Cooper said that she is encouraged by the response so far from the Ackerman administration.

The Title III spending issue arose last spring when the District turned down a request from an advocacy coalition, including parents affiliated with the community groups JUNTOS and SEAMAAC, to increase the number of bilingual counselor assistants (BCAs) in South Philadelphia. BCAs provide translation services for families, and advocates say many South Philadelphia schools have been unable to communicate with growing numbers of non-English-speaking parents. In 2006, the District cut the number of budgeted BCA positions.

Chen recently announced the hiring of nine additional BCAs for this fall.

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