Tennessee School Districts Lose Title I Money Amid Shifts Stemming From Federal Audit

Photo: Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. Metro Nashville Public Schools will get Title 1 funds for low-income students slashed, but got boosts from other funding sources. Photo Credit: John Partipilo

By Sam Stockard [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –

Polk County Schools Director James Jones was “left in the dark completely” this week when the school district in southeast Tennessee lost $36,000 in federal funds without an explanation from the state.

It appears to be part of a roughly 5% reduction statewide in money that goes toward low-income students, though some districts are reporting they received funding increases in other areas.

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Polk County Schools district is still trying to find out what happened.

“We don’t know why, and we weren’t communicated with. We weren’t warned. We didn’t get an email. We just, all of us got cut, everybody,” says Jones. “And we’re still searching for answers we don’t have.”

The district has made calls to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s office, field representatives and others in search of answers. 

The Tennessee Department of Education said in a Thursday statement the Title I allocations to districts on Dec. 13 are “provisional and reflect the most recent feedback” from the U.S. Department of Education on Tennessee’s plan to update the amounts and make them consistent with federal guidance. Some districts are expected to receive more than they did previously, according to the state.

In spring 2021, a federal audit found a problem in the state’s calculations dating back to 2017, and since then the state has been working with the feds to obtain final approval of Title I totals for the 2022-23 year, according to the release.

“As a result, these allocations may be different than what districts would have expected based on prior year allocations. The department will continue to collaborate with (the federal Department of Education) towards final approval on allocation calculations and practices and will allocate federal funds in alignment with the final formula approved by them,” the statement says.

With about 17,500 residents, Polk County has one of the smallest school districts in Tennessee. Any loss of funding is consequential for the nearly 2,200 students, even with a $20 million budget, Jones says. 

The district receives about $170,000 annually in Title I money from the federal government. Distributions go to schools based on the number of students on the federally-subsidized meals program.

The loss of $36,000 could affect everything from an education assistant to the number of students in a classroom to copy machines and paper, according to Jones. 

“It isn’t earth shattering, but it is because we’re very poor, and $36,000 is a lot to deal with as a very poor county, especially with no warning and no information and no why,” Jones says.

Bradley County Schools also reacted after losing $80,000, saying it will be operating on a tighter budget.

“Without warning or explanation, a portion of the Title I funding was pulled on Tuesday, Dec. 13. This money supports instruction for students in high-poverty schools. However, the district did receive additional funds in Title II, which is utilized for professional development, and in special education,” said Dana Yost, director of federal projects at Bradley County Schools.

Metro Nashville Public Schools lost $196,000 for its Title I program, but it also was notified it would be receiving $290,000 more in federal funding to support effective instruction, $57,000 to cover fees and $58,000 more for IDEA preschool that provides support services for children with disabilities

Metro Nashville Public Schools spokesman Sean Braisted pointed out that Title I funds “fluctuate” based on enrollment and the makeup of the district’s population. 

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Rutherford County Schools is experiencing a $368,322 reduction, about 6.5% of its Title I funding, which is not uncommon but larger than in the past, according to spokesman James Evans.

The cut will not affect programming this school year because the district carries over funds from the previous school year. But adjustments will be needed next year because the cut affects “startup funds,” Evans said.

J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, said Thursday districts deserve to know what caused the changes in funding. 

Projections were supposed to be made in September, not December, Bowman pointed out.

“There needs to be an explanation, and (Commissioner Schwinn) needs to explain it statewide, why that money has been reduced. And she needs to go on the record and explain it to both the school districts, the parents and media,” Bowman said.

In addition, Schwinn should provide an explanation for the timeline of the reductions, because hiring has to be done at the start of the year, not as the holiday break approaches, Bowman said.

About the Author: Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam

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