Summer programs facing cuts in federal dollars

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Some community organizations that depend on state money to provide after-school and summer programs for thousands of low-income children in Chicago say they’re upset with how long it’s taken the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to issue a request for proposals for millions of dollars in 21st  Century Community Learning Centers funding.

As a result of the continued uncertainty, they say they’re scaling back or cutting their offerings in the coming months.

“I’ve been talking with people every day, sitting down with principals, families, who don’t know what they’ll do this summer,” says Melissa Mitchell, executive director of the state’s Federation for Community Schools. “I’m just not clear on how this isn’t something that gets priority when it’s money that could go out to communities that need it. These are federal dollars that aren’t part of the machinations in Springfield.”

ISBE, meanwhile, says the organizations knew since Day One there was no guarantee their funding would be renewed, and should have used the initial award to implement plans that would wean them off the grants. The funding comes from a federal program aimed at providing academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for students, particularly those from high-poverty and low-performing schools. 

“Each grantee was required to submit a sustainability plan which detailed how the organization would continue to provide services to students when the funding was no longer available,” says Mary Fergus, an ISBE spokeswoman. “There are no surprises here — the programs ending have known they were ending this year since the day they applied.”

Fergus said the RFP is not delayed, but that the process has been impacted by the state’s receipt of a waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind Law, which gives ISBE additional flexibility with how the 21st Century grants can be used. She said ISBE is now evaluating how to incorporate this flexibility – which includes the option of using funds during the school day – into the new RFP.

ISBE expects to release the RFP for next year’s grant cycle sometime in early- to mid-June, and to announce awards three months later.

In 2012, when ISBE last issued an RFP for the 21st Century funding, the state awarded five-year grants to 37 organizations, for a total of nearly $14.5 million in funding during the first year. The annual amount decreases in the latter part of the funding period. Organizations that have been awarded the grant in the past also qualify for less money the second time around and cannot reapply for a third round of funding. Many organizations that already received two rounds of funding are lobbying ISBE to eliminate that limit.

No alternative sources of money

Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, says the overarching problem is the lack of outside funding for organizations like his to develop the infrastructure to work with schools and provide programming for children and their families. The 21st Century funding makes it possible for organizations to hire full-time resource coordinators who can establish the partnerships and programs and leverage additional dollars.

“There’s a huge disconnect here,” says Brosnan. “The funders don’t exist. This is also coming at a time when CPS is cutting budgets again, when there are no after-school services funded in any other way, and you also have programs ending like the state potentially cutting a bunch of other programs, Teen REACH dollars.”

Brosnan says his organization, which works with four schools through 21st Century grants, plans to let go of 27 full- and part-time employees this summer as he scrambles to look for additional money. This year, the organization received about $480,000 to partner with schools and provide a range of programs for children and adults, including tutoring, art classes, soccer, martial arts, and GED classes.

“We’re trying to figure out how at this moment were going to be able to sustain some baseline level of services for the kids and families,” he says. “It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. We saw this coming and have been having meetings with ISBE, trying to get them to understand the importance of getting the RFP [Request for Proposals] out in a timely matter.”