State officials last year dangled an enticing carrot before administrators at California's worst schools: millions of dollars in federal funding to help turn around failing campuses -- including nearly $45 million slated for the East Bay.
This year, the state is moving the carrot. The California Department of Education is making school districts work harder to get the second and third installments of the three-year grants awarded in 2010-11 unless they can ensure they will fully implement such reforms as increased instructional time for all students.
Education officials also want to withhold as much as $69 million in new federal grants that districts were counting on to pay for reforms at additional failing schools starting in the fall. The state has rejected every application -- 25 in all -- that districts throughout California filed for the latest share of federal School Improvement Grants.
"The applications we got were not rigorous enough, not strong enough," said Chris Swenson, the state's director of district and school improvement. "They all needed more work."
The state intended to award all the federal money last year, but it carried some over this year, to be awarded between 2011-12 and 2013-14.
The state Board of Education expects to vote Wednesday on a recommendation that would force all 41 districts that received grants in 2010-11 to rewrite their applications and create "corrective action" plans to ensure that requirements are met. Applications from the Oakland, Hayward, San Lorenzo, Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa districts were among those singled out for corrections.
The districts were told that they didn't increase student learning time for all students at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, and that some plans weren't sufficiently explained, might not be available to all students or didn't meet other requirements.
However, officials here say a lack of clarity from the state is the real problem. Some plan to protest the state's findings and oppose the delay of new grants.
"We're not in favor of that because we want to be able to serve kids now, not a year from now," said Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland district. The blanket denial, he added, shows that the state "hasn't provided sufficient guidance, and they're being reactive because of the criticism they face from the feds."
After visiting many California grant sites in March, the U.S. Department of Education criticized the state for failing to adequately administer grant applications, ensure that programs were implemented correctly, verify that money was spent appropriately and provide required follow-up monitoring. The state has 30 days to develop its own corrective action plan.
Many local officials said the federal criticism has led the state to throw aside previously approved plans as no longer good enough. The Mt. Diablo district was caught off guard when the state denied its new application for $11.2 million and asked the district to increase instructional time for all students at schools that received grants last year.
Mt. Diablo still needs to negotiate extended school days with the teachers union, said Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support.
"We were of the understanding that we would start that process and we would have until the end of the grant to put those things into place," she said. "But in the meantime, the federal government has told California that, 'No, this needs to happen much sooner.' So, they kind of changed the rules on this."
Officials in Oakland, Hayward, San Lorenzo and West Contra Costa said they thought they were fulfilling their grant requirements. The state's concerns about Oakland schools could probably be addressed by improved documentation -- and clearer expectations, said Aaron Townsend, Oakland's grant coordinator. It was unclear how the state made its determinations for corrective action, based on the limited amount of data schools were asked to provide, Townsend said.
"There hasn't been a really intensive review or monitoring process," he said.
Elmhurst Community Prep, for example, added 30 minutes of academic instruction for all students, four days a week, in addition to the extended school day for sixth-graders. The state, however, dinged the Oakland school for not doing so.
Similarly, Hayward offered extended learning opportunities to all students at each of its grant sites, said Leticia Salinas, executive director of academic affairs. Due to the state's budget stalemate, California districts didn't receive grants until after school started, which made it difficult to implement required programs immediately, she said.
Furlough days also may have hindered some districts' ability to meet grant requirements.
"You don't have to have furlough days for every single school, if you've accepted money under certain conditions for particular schools," said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education. "We need to hear from the locals directly and hear what their problems are and get into this in detail."
Staff writers Chris Metinko and Katy Murphy contributed to this report.
DISTRICT 2010 GRANTS NEW APPLICATION
Hayward $16 million None
Mt. Diablo $14.8 million $11.2 million
Oakland $8.5 million $8.6 million
San Lorenzo $1.6 million None
West Contra Costa $4 million $4 million
Source: California Department of Education and districts