School districts across Long Island say the cost of implementing the federal Race to the Top initiative outstrips the monetary awards.
Some are opting out, rejecting the funding to free themselves of the obligation.
Neil Lederer, interim superintendent of the Three Village district, said it just didn't make sense to take the money. His district, with about 7,400 students, was to get $30,176, spread over four years.
"It was minuscule, and the amount of paperwork involved in documenting how the money was used would have cost us more in labor . . . and in record-keeping than it was worth," Lederer said. "For $7,500 a year, it was almost laughable."
State and federal officials have long touted the program, a hallmark of President Barack Obama's education policy aimed at boosting struggling schools and rewarding reform and innovation.
New York State was elated to win $700 million in 2010, and many districts welcomed the aid. The initiative dovetailed with state mandates; both the state and federal governments demanded that school districts develop teacher evaluations linking educator ratings with student achievement. Race to the Top allocations are contingent upon that.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who Thursday morning is to speak on education reform at the Hofstra University Club on the Hempstead campus, pointed out that many Race to the Top requirements reflect state rules that schools must comply with anyway. The standards, he said in an interview, "are in the best interest of students."
Federal officials, noting the program is voluntary, said it requires commitment on the part of participants.
"Reform is hard work," said Liz Utrup, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "If this were easy, it would've been done years ago. A vast majority of New York school districts have stepped up to meet this challenge, and they are helping lead the country where we need to go."
Grants in small amounts
But participation in Race to the Top, with its time-consuming requirements, is seen by some as more trouble than it's worth. Of about 100 Long Island public school districts slated to get a total of almost $8.3 million, more than 60 were to get four-year allotments of less that $50,000.
School officials in several Nassau and Suffolk districts said the money won't come close to covering the cost of buying new tests, hiring outside agencies to grade exams, training teachers and administrators, and paying for substitutes to work in their place, among other expenses required by the program.
The Rockville Centre school board voted recently to turn down the district's $34,230 Race to the Top award. Chris Pellettieri, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the district would have to invest $150,000 in testing, scoring, training and other payments.
"We are, in essence, declining the money due to the fact that it would cost so much to implement what RTTT requires," he said.
Amagansett decided not to pursue the funding after learning it would get less than $500 per year. Superintendent Eleanor Tritt said, too, that she didn't want teachers missing out on classroom time for the program's training and meetings.
Port Jefferson will accept the $9,570 it's to be given, though officials said they understand why others are bowing out.
"The districts that have taken a stance to say they are rejecting the funding are making a very strong statement to those who are creating the mandates," superintendent Ken Bossert said. "It's not something we are prepared to do in Port Jeff -- that decision was made before I was superintendent."
Bossert expects to spend about $80,000 in the program's first year.
Some districts don't want to turn down funding while school budgets are shrinking.
Amityville is getting $141,243 -- a drop in its $79-million budget -- but school officials didn't feel they could pass it up.
"We are in a spot now where nickels look like manhole covers," superintendent John Williams said. "I don't think it's good public practice for us right now to turn our back on any available funds."
He likened the district's rationale to the state's push for the $700 million. "If you don't obtain it, you look foolish," he said.
Administrators in Freeport enthusiastically endorse Race to the Top. The district, which will get a total of $348,705, likely will spend more than that, but they believe it is worth the investment.
Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said he's excited about the reforms the program will bring.
"It is a lot clearer now where we are heading and what we need to accomplish for our students to be globally competitive," he said.
The program will cost the district some $250,000 in its first year but will change Freeport for the better, he said.
"I strongly believe we have to really embrace it," Kuncham said. "Districts doing very well might feel differently, but this is a great thing in my opinion."
Jane Modoono, Herricks high school principal, said her district was to get $28,000 and pulled out early.
"We figured it would cost us between $100,000 and $200,000 per year," she said. "It was money we could spend in a much better way than this."
She said Herricks is on the right track. The district, in evaluating itself, considers the number of students enrolled in college-level Advanced Placement courses as one indicator of success.
Roughly 70 percent take at least one AP course currently, compared with 30 to 40 percent a decade ago, she said. And students' marks have remained solid.
"We know where our kids are," she said. "To me, it's a distraction from the important work we were trying to do."
Lederer, of Three Village, is suspicious of the program's motives.
"The intent was to manipulate the states to get greater control of teacher unions and their evaluation processes and tenure," he said. "And you have to be careful with one-time revenue sources. Once the money is spent, what do you do to keep the programs in place?"
He said he never bothered to figure out exactly how much Race to the Top would cost to carry out -- he knew it was well above the district's allotment.
"We feel it saves us," he said of Three Village's decision last year to forgo the money. "Now we can focus on some other things. I have no regrets."