Bibb schools await money, rules from stimulus package

Millions in economic stimulus money headed to the Bibb County school system could pay for more teachers in low-income schools, better train them and buy more school technology.

The school system could get $11.8 million to pump into its 28 Title I schools, based on estimates from the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee. Title 1 schools are those where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Bibb could also get an additional $6.1 million to improve instruction for special-needs students.

“You read these big numbers that Bibb will get this big money,” school Superintendent Sharon Patterson said. But “you don’t know when, how much or under what circumstances. ... I don’t want to set the expectation this is a silver bullet in Bibb.”

Patterson hasn’t confirmed how much Bibb is set to receive or the guidelines for spending the money.

It doesn’t appear that the infusion can be used for school facility upgrades or to help the system’s gloomy general operating budget, Patterson said. Patterson announced last week that the school system may have to cut pay 2 percent for 861 employees to save the system nearly $1 million.

Last school year, the school system received $10 million in federal Title I money, which was spent hiring extra teachers and counselors in Title I schools, as well as for after-school tutoring programs and instructional supplies. Twenty percent of the money also paid for transportation for school-choice transfers and private tutoring for students in schools considered in “needs improvement” status.

Patterson and state officials say the stimulus money may have to be spent in similar fashion.

“We’re waiting to get federal guidance,” said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. “As people know, federal money always comes with rules and regulations attached.”

That department could get about $351 million for Title I, $95.5 million for school improvements, $22 million for school technology, and $335 million for special-needs students, Tofig said of estimates from a national group that’s monitoring the federal grant.

The governor’s office also could receive about $1.54 billion, with flexibility on how to spend the money. Some of that funding also could go toward education.

Without knowing the full guidelines yet, Patterson said some of the Title I funds for Bibb County could be pumped into a Response to Intervention program. That program uses data early on to help diagnose students at Title I schools with learning disabilities and get them help.

The money could also hire more teachers at Title I schools in order to have fewer students in each classroom, or to hire more teachers to use “differentiated instruction.”

Under that style of instruction, instead of one teacher setting the same classroom pace and teaching in the same manner for all students, students learn a subject based on their own pace, either in groups or by having two teachers in a room.

“We could jump start it if we had those funds,” Patterson said. Stimulus money could also be used to buy more technology for Title I schools.

For the 2,800 or so students with disabilities, the funding could allow more of them to take courses with regular program students, which is referred to as the “inclusion model.”

The stimulus money could help hire more special education teachers to work as co-teachers alongside regular classroom teachers. Money would also be spent on teacher training for the various programs.

Still, Patterson said lots of questions remain. Even if the system received up to $18 million in federal stimulus money, with all the regulations, Patterson didn’t know if it could all be spent in the two-year implementation window.

The new funding may also require hiring a central office position to monitor the funds and paperwork.

“There’s a lot of stuff that has to be worked out,” she said.

The school system had also submitted a wish list to lawmakers asking for $181 million in economic stimulus money for school facility needs, such as rebuilding Heard Elementary and upgrading heating and air conditioning at several older schools. Early indications are, though, that no funding will go toward capital projects.

A conference call with State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox and district superintendents is slated for next week.

State officials also are working with the governor’s office, the office of planning and budget, as well as others, on implementation and distribution of the funds.

“What we know is a stimulus package passed and Georgia is set to receive a substantial amount of money, but doesn’t have the rules,” Tofig said. “It’s all happening very fast.”

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.