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DISD trustees postpone vote on cutting funding to learning centers

The Dallas school board postponed a controversial vote on cutting learning-center funding after hearing concerns from some trustees and angry members of the public Thursday night.

The Dallas school board postponed a controversial vote on cutting learning-center funding after hearing concerns from some trustees and angry members of the public Thursday night.

District administrators told trustees earlier this month that funding would have to be cut at 34 campuses - many of which are learning centers - because per-pupil spending at the schools is not equitable.

Learning centers would need to cut $16 million to keep the district from losing $105 million in federal aid and stimulus money next school year, trustees were told.

The schools, created to provide good neighborhood campuses for black students who had been bused to predominantly white schools, would, in effect, be reduced to the same resources as regular schools.

The board voted 5-4 to postpone the vote until May 14, giving the administration time to respond to fears from the public and some trustees, who believe the district hasn't exhausted options to keep from having to cut budgets at the 16 learning centers.

The cuts to the learning center program would slash additional staff and eliminate special programs, such as extended days and after-school programs.

The board also is being asked to equalize funding at some of the district's other specialized schools, such as vanguards and magnets. But unlike the learning centers, none of those schools would suffer cuts that would greatly diminish their functions.

Parents protest

Some parents vehemently defended the learning centers at Thursday's meeting, with some fearing what would become of their children with the reduced funding.

The schools came about in the mid-1980s under a court-ordered desegregation of the city's school system.

Parent Quincher Morgan wore Band-Aids on her face to symbolize what the board would be doing to the learning centers if funding is cut.

"It will be cutting down choices, goals," she said. "I'm very upset."

Learning-center student Carmen Gills told trustees: "We are different. We need all of our teachers."

Cutting funding for learning centers, or doing away with them, has long been a contentious subject among school trustees. Through the years, some trustees have questioned the need for learning centers - and their extra costs - in a school district where more than 90 percent of students are minorities.

Some of the learning centers have been hurt by staff reductions and reshuffling, according to a 2008 audit completed by Michigan education expert and consultant Robert L. Green. The report also noted that student performance was no better than at schools that don't receive the same influx of money.

Green also cited slipping accountability ratings at some of the learning centers.

But trustee Ron Price, who angrily opposed cutting learning-center funding, raised the question that if the learning centers "are not performing well, what the hell do they think is going to happen if you take the money away?"

Title I funds

Trustee Carla Ranger, who argued against cutting funding, has contended that the funding changes at the learning centers are racially motivated.

She said she also believes the schools are protected under an agreement, the "Declaration of Commitments and Covenants," that DISD trustees adopted upon release from the desegregation order in 2003.

The Texas Education Agency stated in an e-mail last week that if DISD doesn't equalize the funding for all its schools, Title I funds "would be suspended until DISD comes into compliance."

TEA recently discovered that DISD has for years been inaccurately filling out a report used by the state and federal government to determine a district's eligibility to receive Title I funds, money aimed at supporting the education of low-income children.

The federal government requires that all schools be funded within 10 percent of a district's average per-campus allocation. If even one school falls outside that 10 percent window, the district is ineligible to receive Title I funds. Some of the district's federal stimulus money also is to be used for some Title I programs.

Every year, the district must submit campus-level spending reports to TEA to ensure all schools are being equitably funded with local dollars. But DISD has been omitting figures from the specialized schools, its most expensive campuses. TEA stated in its e-mail that the specialized schools cannot be grouped separately.

Ranger challenged district administrators on whether they had considered seeking a waiver that would protect the learning centers.

"I'm very troubled by all of this," said Ranger, who was cheered by many in the audience.

But Larry Throm, the district's executive chief financial officer, told the board the district could not get a waiver for the learning centers.

He said the Texas Education Agency had relayed that fact to the district.

"There are no waivers available," Throm said.