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$17M of available NY education grants awarded

Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- New York state's use of competitive grants for certain education initiatives benefited only a relative handful of students during the initiative's first year, according to a report that said Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plans to expand the practice might be premature.

Only about 10 percent of the state's nearly 700 school districts applied for the $25 million Cuomo made available for performance improvement grants for the current school year, and even fewer, 38 districts, went after $25 million in management efficiency grants, the Citizens Budget Commission report, issued last week, found.

After disqualifications and final review, 28 districts were awarded a total of $10.2 million in performance improvement grants that will benefit 3.6 percent of the state's students, the commission found. The funding is meant for programs to increase student academic performance.

Just over $7 million in management efficiency grants were awarded to districts that found ways to save money by doing such things as adjusting staffing and busing. The money will benefit 2.3 percent of districts, the report found.

The two grant programs continue in Cuomo's proposed budget for next year. The budget also contains an additional $75 million for new competitive grant programs for full-day prekindergarten, extended learning time, community schools, high-performing teachers and early college high-school programs.

"Based upon the first two rounds of awards, competitive grants have limited impact," the commission report concluded. "Few districts apply and even fewer receive funds."

Caps on the amount of awards, based on a district's size, also limit the benefits of winning and may discourage districts from going through the time and expense of applying, the report said. Some awards equaled as little as $20 per student.

The Cuomo administration expects better participation for future grant competitions, a spokesman said. Only districts that had adopted a new state-approved teacher evaluation system could apply for the first round, a requirement that ruled out many districts.

"Gov. Cuomo's reforms injected accountability and innovation into a system that is now tied to student achievement," spokesman Richard Azzopardi said Friday.

Now, all but a handful of districts have plans in place, though not New York City, with its 1 million students.

Cuomo has proposed increasing overall school spending by 4.4 percent for the next school year, on top of 4.2 percent last year.

The 2,100-student Cheektowaga Central School District was awarded a $48,787 management efficiency grant for this year after consolidating central office duties and eliminating bus routes. The western New York district pays a consultant a flat yearly fee of about $38,000 to write grants, so applying for the management efficiency award didn't put extra strain on the budget, Superintendent Dennis Kane said, though employees did have to take time to gather information for the application.

"We'll take every penny we can get," he said when asked whether the award, equivalent to about $21 per student, was worth the effort. The district will receive a total of $146,361 over three years

The Citizens Budget Commission said it would prefer to see money set aside for grants distributed through aid formulas based on need.