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Prince William County officials clash with school system over federal funds

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 7:30 PM

Prince William County officials are balking at accepting $17 million in federal school funds, claiming that an Obama administration initiative to save teaching jobs encourages irresponsible spending.

The $10 billion federal program, designed to fund about 160,000 education jobs, has met with obstacles in several places across the country since it was enacted last month. Many state and local officials have found it difficult to add teaching positions in time for the current school year because the money has just started to flow.

Officials in some states are accepting millions of dollars in federal money while lowering their own contributions to education. Others are using the money for personnel costs, such as pension benefits, that do not add jobs.

The resistance in Prince William is unusual in its intensity. County officials are debating whether to reject the grant outright rather than allow the fast-growing school district to hire 180 teachers with funding due to expire after only one year.

"The president's program is a sham," said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. "If the [school] district plans to use one-time funds to create ongoing expenses, we're going to reject the funds."

The debate has pitted Superintendent Steven L. Walts against the county supervisors and county teachers against local "tea party" members, who have opposed using the federal money. The tension between the bill's intended purpose and the concerns of county supervisors crystallized last week, when the state government announced funding allocations to school districts.

"The whole purpose is to put teachers in those classes where they're needed, and there's plenty of need in Prince William County," said Bonnie Klakowicz, president of the Prince William Education Association, the local teachers union. "If the supervisors are going to put their politics above good policy, it would be a great disservice to the community."

With three schools due to open in Prince William next year, district officials are eager to bring new teachers into the system. That would not only help prepare the district for its expansion, school officials say, but it also would help the district qualify for additional class-size-reduction funds from the state.

"The county supervisors are arguing with the nature of the bill itself and the role of the federal government and the federal deficit," said Dave Cline, associate superintendent for finance and support services. "These are important issues . . . but from an educational side, we believe that if we can provide better instruction for one year, that's what we're here for."

When Congress approved the bill in August, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the funding would come at a critical time, bolstering the ranks of teachers as public school systems were considering potentially devastating cuts.

But the timing proved awkward for many school districts. "It's the best they could get out of the Senate, but it's not in time to do any significant hiring this year," said Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Several states have used the funding in ways that put few new teachers in the classroom. In Rhode Island and South Dakota, officials plan to use the money to close budget shortfalls by reducing state education funding by the amount received from the federal government.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) said he plans to use his state's $91 million in federal funds to help pay for capital projects by freeing up state money currently spent on teachers. In Illinois, several school districts are considering spending the money on benefits for existing employees.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, has complained about such efforts. NEA Executive Director John I. Wilson wrote a letter to Duncan this week asking him to "clarify that such diversions of Ed Jobs funds are impermissible because they violate the terms of the statute and its overriding purpose."

But federal officials have said that the money may be used to pay for any cost related to employing teachers, including their benefits. "We've stressed that the purpose of the jobs bill is to recruit, retain and rehire teachers," said Sandra Abrevaya, an Education Department spokeswoman.

The funds also can be spent on the pensions and benefits of current employees, as some Prince William supervisors have requested.

In Virginia, where county governments must approve the funding before it is delivered to schools, it's not the first time school districts and county officials have clashed over federal dollars.

When the Prince William School Board spent a portion of its 2009 stimulus funding on pay raises for teachers, Stewart called the decision "irresponsible." He said the lesson made him more vigilant about the school district's expenditures.

"They're playing games with our finances that we can't afford to play," Stewart said.

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