A couple years of miserable state finances have school districts looking for money from other sources, with more of them using grants to bridge their budget gaps.
Whether that means money from government programs or private foundations, it’s a cycle that’s expected to continue, education officials say.
“As the state budget squeezes us, and we squeeze departments, we look for other avenues to obtain funding,” said Craig Skillestad, Spokane Public Schools’ budget director.
The grant money isn’t paying for districts’ essentials, but helps fund “learning enrichment” programs, such as robotics, or buying new equipment, such as crossing-guard gear, that used to be paid for out of state revenues or levy dollars.
Inland Northwest districts tracking competitive grants – as opposed to grants given based on district demographics, such as the number of impoverished students – show an increase in the past five years. The sharpest spike was seen in the past two years, data show. Spokane Public Schools’ competitive grants rose to $17.3 million so far in 2009-10, up from $2.6 million during the 2008-09 school year. Some of the current-year grants are through the federal stimulus program.
The trend is reflected nationwide.
The National Education Association Foundation – a nonprofit created and sustained by educators which has given out 2,000 grants totaling $6 million in the past decade – has seen a “big jump” in applicants, said Edith Wooten, the foundation’s spokeswoman. The increase has been marked in the last two years, she added. There are so many more applicants that the NEA hopes to secure more money to give out.
“We think there are a couple of reasons applications are up – people can apply online and there is really a need out there,” Wooten said.
Sometimes grant money can help pay for staff positions or equipment, although districts must make sure the spending adheres to the purpose of the grant.
“Grant money for drug and alcohol prevention is being used for counseling, which is paying for a number of staff at various schools,” Skillestad said. Grant money is also being used for heating and cooling equipment, a band and strings concert, instructors and specialists for second-language learners and new technology.
“Districts have to do something to fill in the gaps left by the state,” Skillestad added.
Central Valley and Coeur d’Alene school districts have followed the same path as Spokane Public Schools.
“We certainly are writing and applying for grants as much as possible to help offset some of our budget cuts,” said Coeur d’Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman. The district received more than $100,000 this academic year, which was more than in previous years.
Central Valley’s grants climbed to around $415,000 in 2008-09 from about $380,000 in 2007-08, data show.
Melanie Rose, district spokeswoman, said the large variance in grant monies between Spokane and Central Valley can be attributed to CV’s much smaller size and having fewer low-income students.
Districts with a greater number of low-income students, such as Spokane Public Schools, often qualify for more grants, officials said. For example, some federal stimulus money – which is considered grant dollars – was used to fund two additional all-day kindergartens in the district because it had elementary schools that qualified. “Another aspect we have going for us, OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) will contact us because of some of our well-respected educators,” Skillestad said. “They say, ‘We have a special earmark of money; we know you guys will do good things with it, so can you write a grant for it?’ ”
Foundations are another grant source, and both the Coeur d’Alene School District and Spokane Public Schools have seen their share of foundation grants grow in recent years.
Some local foundations have stepped up support of schools, such as the Avista Foundation and Spokane Public Schools’ own foundation, as well as national foundations that target education such as the Barbara Bush Library Foundation.
How much money is available from foundations and private donors nationwide?
“It’s a fairly difficult thing to get an accurate take on,” said Lois Leveen, spokeswoman for Grantmakers for Education, a national group that works with philanthropists in directing money toward education. But members of that organization represented about $1.5 billion in education funding in 2009, she said.
“We have worked really hard to help keep grants up because we know districts are in tight spots,” Leveen said.
Members at Leveen’s organization also work with educators to help them be more competitive in winning state and federal grants.
“There are more dollars available through the U.S. Department of Education than there ever have been before,” she said. “This is really an unprecedented opportunity for getting more federal money into the school districts.”