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Granting wishes

Cash-strapped schools seek extra money through grants

A few thousand here, a few hundred thousand there and pretty soon you're talking about a good-sized cache.

Many Utah school districts are looking beyond usual funding sources to stretch their budgets. They are actively pursuing millions of dollars in grants from the federal government or charitable foundations who want to help children learn.

"We simply can't duplicate services without those dollars," said Greg Hudnall, student services director in Provo District.

Successful efforts to obtain grant money added some $6 million to Granite School District coffers last year. Over a two-year period, Davis District received $7 million from grants.

Salt Lake District raised $279,684 in private money last year, but the district also was the beneficiary in 1996 of a hefty $4 million Annenberg Challenge grant that is aimed at improving student performance in inner-city schools.

The grant was contingent on the district raising private money to bring the total to $12 million, a goal district officials announced last week has been reached.

Last school year, Jordan School District secured around $6 million worth of grants, according to its Web site.

The Jordan money ranges from a $7,000 state grant to help elementary schoolteachers bone up on fine arts to a $5.3 million federal grant to create 21st Century Community Learning Centers, or after-school programs helping at-risk students. Intel Corp. and its foundation have been big benefactors, contributing more than $340,000.

Provo and Nebo also have won big in recent federal-grant sweepstakes. Since 1999, Provo has been awarded about $13 million from the federal government to be used over several years for programs to help poor and struggling students.

Nebo's new $3.7 million grant will assist some 2,900 students and 2,300 adults who need a little extra help learning school subjects or finding social services. The initiative is called "Community Leadership in Education and Recreation" program — or CLEAR, for short.

To be sure, grant money is pocket change compared to overall school funding. But in Utah, which spends the fewest tax dollars per student in the country, every penny counts.

"Schools really need more funding than what we have available," said Janene Bowen, a grant-management specialist in Jordan, who worked as an English teacher for 16 years before moving to the district position. "There is a lot of (grant) money out there."

"Raising money through grants is an excellent thing," said Val Finlayson, who heads Utah Partnership, a group that helps secure donations for schools. "It's a good way to get money from people who want to give money away."

Finlayson is concerned, though, that grant-seeking may further disadvantage small districts in the state.

Large districts can afford to hire workers to seek grants full time. Smaller districts simply can't afford to hire such specialists, he said.

But 31 of 40 districts have a foundation devoted to fund-raising — and Utah is ranked No. 1 in the country for collecting outside funds for schools.

The nine districts that don't have foundations can look to the Utah Education Foundation, which was established in the 1990s with the goal of raising school funds.

When it became apparent that the foundation was sometimes competing with Utah's institutions of higher education for the same money, and when district foundations became more successful, the state foundation became primarily a resource for smaller districts to comply with tax requirements related to grant money, Finlayson said.

"Our district has come to realize the importance of getting this funding," said Christine Huley, a teacher-turned-administrator-turned-grant-writer in Granite District.

Huley pursues many avenues for potential grant money and has spent a lot of time training school administrators and teachers to watch for and go after grant money.

A form available in Granite schools invites anyone to submit a suggested project that could benefit from grant money.

Granite's aggressive approach, which includes constant sifting of Internet and other listings of grant possibilities, nets about 38 percent results. Davis District takes a more selective approach, according to grant writer John Ross, concentrating on grants where the probability of success is best. The result is a 66 percent success rate.

"Sometimes the probability (of beating out the competition) is so small, we're not in a position to compete effectively," said Ross. Even when district officials feel their chances are good, they may be disappointed. He cited competition for federal English as a second language grant money that was sought by six Utah districts.

Although Davis made a compelling argument for need and a good plan to use the money, it lost the three-year, $1 million grant to Duchesne District, which has a large population of Native American students who need special training in English.

The federal government — particularly the U.S. Department of Education — is a major source of money. And competition is fierce, said Provo's Hudnall, who oversees Provo District's foundation and grant-writing efforts.

Finding grant money has become even more difficult since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Hudnall said.

"The money isn't there," he said. "It's being taken to pay for the war and Sept. 11 and other things."

Hudnall said Provo goes "head-to-head" against such urban school systems as Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit.

Provo has the same social problems that plague large-city school districts, albeit on a smaller scale, he said. For example, more than 30 percent of children in Provo District qualify under poverty guidelines to receive free or reduced-price lunches. And at a few elementary schools, the number of ESL students outnumbers native English speakers.

Hudnall said one of the best ways to attract the attention of grant-givers is to show how various government and private groups can work together to solve a citywide problem.

For example, Provo District received funding for a suicide-prevention program that involves local police departments, hospitals, colleges and other nearby government agencies.

"It shows that the city is coming together," he said. "Washington just eats that up."

Hudnall said the best grant writers know how to show the district's need — and how the money would be used.

Carefully crafted arguments can sway the panels that screen piles of applications. The vagaries of such panels is a sore spot with Ross, however. It's a "crap shoot," he said.

There's an obvious drawback to grant money, too.

The money doesn't keep coming forever. Recipients must be careful not to build the money into continuing projects without some assurance that they can be continued with standard sources of income.

For instance, Granite last year received a $600,000 "Transition to Teaching" federal grant to get more teachers into the system by offering "alternative" paths for people who have college degrees but aren't trained teachers.

The district is establishing a program to help those who want to become teachers. But when the grant money is gone, the project will die without district commitment, Huley said.

"The key is to develop programs in a way that they can be embedded into the district's ongoing functions," she said.

Some districts contract with grant writers who are experts at identifying and pursuing grant money. They are effective because "they know exactly what the government wants," said Daphne Williams, director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation and supervisor of community involvement.

Spectrum Consulting in Logan is one such firm. As an example of the company's ability to win grants, company official Thomas Schuster points to some $14 million in grants won for Logan and Cache districts.

The economic impact of such grants multiplies, he said, making the total effect to the community worth $40 million.

Hudnall said he often hears that local districts shouldn't give away local control of schools by taking money from the federal government.

"I've heard criticism that we shouldn't take federal dollars, but the bottom line is that we don't want to raise taxes," he said. "We see it as a natural way to meet the needs of our children. If you don't have the money to meet those needs you still have the problem."

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