Partners grant request highlights tension between districts and Education Fund overseers | SteamboatToday.com

Partners grant request highlights tension between districts and Education Fund overseers

Soroco Middle School student Megan Kelliher works on a project organized by Partners in Routt County school-based mentors in 2012. Whether the school-based mentor program will continue during the 2016-17 school year is still unclear.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since originally posted.

Tensions are mounting between Steamboat Springs School District administrators and the grant commission and board members overseeing the Steamboat Springs Education Fund.

The Education Fund Board Wednesday night was expected to sign off on a $97,000 grant request to fund a Partners in Routt County school-based mentor program for the 2016-17 school year.

Instead, two hours before the meeting, superintendents from Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Soroco sent the Education Fund Board a letter criticizing how the board is overseeing the fund and saying that if the board chose to approve the Partners request, the districts wouldn't accept the program into their schools next year.

"Should the EFB decide to award the $97,000 (or other significant portion) request to Partners, the Steamboat Springs School District will discontinue the mentor program for 2016-17," the letter reads. "Hayden and Soroco are seriously considering doing the same."

Partners in Routt County Executive Director Michelle Petix was unaware of the letter's existence or the idea that the three districts would not support the program until it was brought up Wednesday night.

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The three superintendents, a handful of Steamboat school building administrators and several school-based mentors attended the meeting.

"We were pretty shocked at the approach the districts took with our fund request," Petix said.

She said the letter, which wasn’t sent to Partners, went against the partnerships she felt the districts had with Partners and was contrary to the level of value district staff previously placed on the program, including through letters of recommendation to the Grant Commission written last year.

"I feel like a very different picture was painted last night," Petix said Thursday.

Due to the loss of a large government grant, Partners learned in December they might have to end the 16-year AmeriCorps school-based mentor program unless additional funding was found.

Petix asked local school district administrators whether they would increase their contributions to the program significantly to cover the costs or consider a joint request to the Education Fund from the three districts to cover the program's costs for the year.

Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks denied the requests, citing that the district was already expecting to make cuts for the next year's budget and the amount the district was receiving from the Education Fund would be less in the upcoming year.

Petix then turned to the Education Fund Grant Commission herself in January as a last-ditch effort to fund the program, which must be decided on by March 15. Petix said she informed building and district administrators throughout Routt County on Jan. 5 of her plan to ask for funding.

After meetings in January and February, the Grant Commission unanimously approved a $97,000 request to fund 10 mentors for the 2016-17 school year, suggesting that funding come from $22,000 in unallocated community group funds, $45,000 in projected increases in tax revenue for the fund over earlier projections and $30,000 that would otherwise go into a pool split between the three school districts.

Petix emphasized that the perceived costs to the district if the grant were funded would be minimal and would be leveraged with funding from AmeriCorps and from Partners for the program, which would place 10 full-time mentors in schools across the county.

In their letter, district superintendents said they were upset to hear that the Education Fund would consider using district funds to pay for the Partners program, which the districts had already chosen not to provide additional funding for or pursue Education Fund money for.

The Fund Board's current consideration of the Partners request, coupled with the board's and commission's history of awarding community group and innovation grants before district grant requests are received, has led district administrators to feel that other grants are being prioritized over the needs of the district.

"This is not about money for Partners, this is more about how this process affects us," said Michelle Miller, Soda Creek Elementary Principal Michelle Miller said.

Superintendent Brad Meeks said the Fund Board should follow the district's recommendations when considering community group and innovation grants, and when he learned that part of the Partners request might be funded through money that would otherwise go to the district, he reached "a tipping point."

"That's when the three superintendents decided we needed to do something," Meeks said.

In light of the letter sent just before Wednesday's meeting, which most Education Fund Board members had yet to read Wednesday night, the second reading and decision about the Partners grant was tabled.

Funding the Partners' request will be considered during a special meeting of the Education Fund Board at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 9 at the district office board room.

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow