By Diana Lambert | The Sacramento Bee
Monday, Feb. 22, 2010 - 6:56 am | Kwame Dwumfuoh started classes at Elk Grove Unified School District's new Eagle Academy in August in silence. The 7-year-old didn't talk or socialize with his classmates, and he didn't eat most foods.
Now Kwame speaks and plays with his friends, and he has a newfound affinity for tortilla chips, cereal and the occasional chicken burger.
He is flourishing in a school for students with autism spectrum disorders that Elk Grove Unified started with $1.8 million in federal stimulus dollars. The money also paid for programs for emotionally disturbed students at three other campuses.
Nearly $300 million has poured into five Sacramento-area districts since President Barack Obama authorized $100 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for the nation's schools last year.
Federal officials knew that districts strapped for funds because of declining state aid would use some of the stimulus money to plug budget gaps. But they'd hoped the money also would be used to start new programs – like Eagle Academy – that are innovative and reform education.
While Eagle Academy stands out as a new program that is drawing kids previously sent to schools outside the district back into Elk Grove Unified, it is a rarity among local districts.
Autumn Cruz / firstname.lastname@example.org
AUTUMN CRUZ email@example.com Kwame Dwumfuoh, 7, gives his Eagle Academy instructor Frankie Morales a big smile and hug during a lesson at Sierra Enterprise Elementary School. Elk Grove Unified School District used federal stimulus funds to start the Eagle Academy program last year to help students with autism disorders – and save school staff jobs.
A Bee analysis finds that most local districts used their federal stimulus money to pay for keeping teachers and basic programs.
Now, as the federal bailout is ending, school districts are warning teachers unions to prepare to make concessions to avoid massive layoffs.
"I think it (stimulus funds) was useful in saving jobs while it lasted," said David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools. "The money is now going away, so it's going to be very difficult to make that up because of all the additional cuts from the state.
"This is really, really bad," Gordon said. "It's as bad as I've ever seen it in 36 or 37 years."
Even with the federal money, school boards in the past two years have had to shutter schools, cut programs, lay off teachers, increase class size and eliminate summer school and sports programs to make up for reduced state aid.
The budgets of California schools were cut by $18 billion in that period, state schools chief Jack O'Connell said in his recent State of Education Address. He expects the governor's budget proposal to cut K-12 education by another $2.4 billion.
Understandably, the federal stimulus money was a godsend to the districts. Elk Grove Unified – the area's largest district – used $26 million of its $39.5 million in stimulus funds to save the jobs of teachers, counselors, library technicians, vice principals and administrative assistants.
Officials from Sacramento City Unified spent about half of the district's $43.3 million share to save jobs. The district spent another $1.5 million to keep Mark Hopkins Elementary open for another year and nearly the entire balance to offset other budget reductions.
Twin Rivers Unified School District reported saving 109 teaching jobs with some of its $19 million in stimulus funds. San Juan Unified School District spent at least $19 million of its $34.5 million to retain positions.
School districts still have some relief coming. There is another round of stimulus funding for programs for disabled students (IDEA) and low-income schools (Title I), as well as a small amount of available state stabilization funds, said Carol Bingham, director of fiscal policy for the California Department of Education.
"Schools have been hit with pretty big budget cuts, but the Title I money and IDEA money are dedicated for particular purposes, so it's difficult for them to use it for specific budget cuts," Bingham said.
She said $351 million in school improvement grants and $72 million in education technology money still are to be distributed to state schools.
Also up for grabs are $4.35 billion in Race to the Top competitive grants being offered to the nation's schools.
Gordon said few of the county's school districts were able to save the stimulus funds. "They said, 'Spend it, spend it. Spend it,' " Gordon said. "But some managed to hold onto it."
Elk Grove Unified plans to use $5 million in stimulus funds it kept to help save more jobs next year.
Besides helping students like Kwame Dwumfuoh, Elk Grove's new programs for students with special needs have added benefits for the school district.
Before the new programs began this year, 332 of the district's students with autism, mental retardation or emotional problems had to be sent to non-public schools as far away as El Dorado County, said district officials. The new programs have brought 72 of those students back into the district.
District officials expect to save $1 million annually by opening the Eagle Academy and the programs for emotionally disturbed students. The district will use the money to maintain the special education programs and to start others, with a goal of eventually bringing 200 special education students back into the district.
The more students the district is able to bring back, the more money will be saved, said Bill Tollestrup, director of special education.
"It's an investment into something that brings money into the district," said Brooke Warren, program specialist. "It's a win-win."
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