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7th May
2002

First Published in The New York Sun,  May 7, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Adequate funding is important to the school system to be sure. But over $12 billion goes to the schools annually, and spending has risen dramatically in recent years with little, if any, visible improvement. What is really happening to our education dollars?

A close examination of how the system works reveals that it is not enough to merely ship more dollars to a system incapable of effectively spending the dollars they already have. Those who suggest that more funding alone is the answer would be well advised to “follow the money trail.” They will learn that there are many detours on the long and winding path to the classroom.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently wrote two impassioned pleas for maintaining current funding levels and then some. Mr. Herbert is, alas, off the mark. The fact is that when money has been allocated to the schools it is often not spent in the manner intended.

Ironically, Mr. Herbert expressly points to cuts in the popular Project ARTS program. But the truth about the way Project ARTS funds were spent reveals much about where the problems really lie in our school system.
This specifically earmarked $75 million allocation has been routinely hijacked by district superintendents, with the full funding rarely ever reaching the classroom. In District 10 in the northwest Bronx during the 2000-01 fiscal year, the $63 per capita funding that came to the district was reduced by more than 50%, to $30 by the time it reached the schools. The district’s 40,000 children were shortchanged $1.3 million that simply disappeared into the black hole of
bureaucracy during a year when there was no budget crisis at all.

The fast and loose spending pattern was noted by the central board but no action was taken. When the Riverdale Review first reported on the Project ARTS controversy, Dr. Sharon Dunn, the former Senior Assistant to the Chancellor for the Arts, who directed the Project ARTS program, confirmed that District 10 “failed to comply” with repeated requests to justify the way they were spending Project ARTS funds. “We are aware of a problem in District 10 and we asked them to provide us with specifics, which have not been forthcoming.” At the behest of Community School Board 10, Superintendent Irma Zardoya finally provided an accounting of the way the funds were spent. But the one page document raised more questions than it answered.

The superintendent “double counted” $392,940 as a district “set aside” of $10 per pupil. What she failed to disclose to her board is that Project ARTS money cannot go into a general fund, but rather must be spent for the very specific purposes enumerated by the central board. According to an April 26, 2000 memorandum from the Board of Education’s Chief Executive for Program Development William P. Casey, “these funds must be value added to each school or district’s instructional programs in the arts and must not supplant resources already dedicated to arts education.”

In February, 1997, all districts were supposed to set a base level of funding for the arts to which the Project ARTS funds are to be added. The guidelines specified that districts must reallocate at least $53 of the $63 per capita allocation directly to each school “based on the number of students in each school.” Districts may reserve no more than $10 per child “to administer Project ARTS and to implement districtwide professional development which supports standards based arts instruction and establishes the connection between arts education and literacy.” No less than $53 per child was to go directly to the schools.
Despite these specific guidelines, Ms. Zardoya listed significant expendi
tures directed at two tiny schools, both of which were fully funded prior to the introduction of Project ARTS. According to Ms. Zardoya, a total of $106,500 was allocated to the 105 students in the Bronx Dance Academy, a per capita allocation of $1,014. At TAPCO, the district’s Theater Arts school, $73,250 was allocated to 160 students, or $458 per child. Compare these figures to the $30 per pupil the district provided to other, less favored schools.

The district claimed to have used $190,000 for a Saturday Talent and Enrichment Program even though Project ARTS guidelines specifically state that funds “may not be used for after school programs.” District 10 was not alone in playing games with the funds that Mr. Herbert was wringing his hands over possibly losing.

According to a story in the December 15, 2000 edition of the New York Post, “infuriated principals” told Post reporter Carl Campanile that $1-million in Project ARTS funds were not made available to schools in Brooklyn’s District 15. It was implied that those funds were used to plug District 15’s budget deficit.

What went on in the other 30 districts (plus the Chancellor’s District and High School Superintendencies) is anyone’s guess. While researching the original story, the Riverdale Review contacted every school district in the city, but few were willing to talk. It felt as though it would have been easier to research the intimate details of the administrators’ sex lives than it was to obtain information as to how these public funds were spent.

Shortly after the New York Post article appeared, District 15 Superintendent Frank DeStefano was dismissed. Said Chancellor Harold Levy, “Unfortunately, the children suffer because of something adults did or did not do.” But the standard that cost Mr. DeStefano his job has not been universally applied. It is this lack of accountability that should concern the mayor, City Council, and state legislature as they prepare their budgets.

Until both the central board and district offices are severely downsized and brought under firm fiscal control, there is little chance that our children will benefit from the funds allocated to them in good faith.

Why do the schools need the filters of the central board and district office in order to receive money from the city? Given that Project ARTS funds are intended directly for the schools, sending them through the district offices is just an invitation to diversion. If the funds were sent directly to the schools, maybe then the kids would get their money’s worth. But until then we need to focus on the bureaucracies that are squandering the resources intended for our children’s education.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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