No new Promise Neighborhood grant this year, Macon learns

Telegraph staffMay 23, 2013 

Mercer University, which has been seeking a grant up to $30 million to boost educational success in two Macon neighborhoods, learned Thursday that the federal government won’t offer any of the grants this year.

More than 20 community groups have been working together on the Macon Promise Neighborhood initiative, which was fueled by a $500,000 planning grant in 2011. The coalition planned to apply this summer, for the second time, for an “implementation grant” to help the struggling neighborhoods.

But Peter Brown, a Mercer University philosophy professor who has helped coordinate efforts, said he learned Thursday that the government doesn’t have the money to fund new implementation grants this year. The U.S. Department of Education will continue to honor only commitments it has already made.

The elimination of this year’s grants are a blow to efforts to expand services from counseling and tutoring to adult education and early childhood care opportunities in the Unionville and Tindall Heights neighborhoods.

President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget proposed $300 million for the Promise Neighborhoods program. Brown told the Bibb County school board this month that the figure was up from $60 million.

Last year’s implementation grant application sought $28.5 million over five years. Dozens of partners had pledged in-kind resources as a match, drawing largely from services they were already providing in the neighborhoods. The school board authorized in-kind and cash contributions up to $1 million a year, but school system administrators ultimately pledged $29.4 million in cash and in-kind resources over a decade.

The $10 million cash from the school system is going toward the Promise Center in the former Ballard-Hudson Middle School on Anthony Road, which is undergoing renovations. A judge rejected challenges to the $575,000 annual lease, and payments have already been made.

Most of the commitments toward the Macon Promise Neighborhood initiative have been independent of the school system’s deal with the building’s landlord, the Central Georgia Partnership for Individual and Community Development.

Among other things, the planning grant helped pay for pilot initiatives in counseling, adult education and mentoring. It was hoped the implementation grant would expand those efforts to more schools and families, plus fund new efforts such as a top-of-the-line day care center emphasizing early learning.

Now “bridge funding” will be key, Brown said. The Peyton Anderson Foundation pledged $150,000, but that money must be matched by other sources in the next six weeks or so.

Cliffard Whitby, executive director of Macon Promise Neighborhood, said collaborative work in the neighborhood will continue without the implementation grant -- and even if the $300,000 in “bridge” funding doesn’t come.

“The work will continue regardless because we have partners already committed to doing the work in the neighborhood already. The question is, how quickly can we bring it to scale?” Whitby said Thursday.

Brown said the coalition may seek big grants from other major charities, such as the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to replace the Promise Neighborhoods implementation funding.

Among other things, additional funding is needed to continue paying the small staff of the Promise Neighborhood program, which helps the partners coordinate and works directly with neighbors. For example, one staff member arranged and coordinated meetings in recent weeks between state day care officials and trainers, and day care providers within the Promise Neighborhood footprint, to help improve the educational quality of day cares that funnel children to kindergarten at local schools.

“The grant is key to affording measurement of outcomes,” said Sharon Cloud, special projects coordinator for Central Georgia Technical College and chairwoman of a Promise Neighborhood action team.

But Promise Neighborhood partners have emphasized that much of the value in the program comes from better coordination between nonprofits and government agencies such as the Macon Housing Authority, the Family Counseling Center and colleges to serve entire families, and many of them expressed confidence that those partnerships would continue even without extra money.

Brown also said he understood the Promise Center could operate without the implementation grant, because it will receive rent from partner agencies, such as Central Georgia Tech’s basketball team, which plans to practice in the gym.

George McCanless, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Georgia, said his agency is still reviewing whether it would become the fiscal agent for Macon Promise Neighborhood’s grant applications. But the concept for the program looks good, McCanless said Thursday.

“The United Way has seen these types of efforts be very successful around the country,” he said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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