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NCLB Outrages

Lancaster schools' newspaper program hits snag

Some say federal funds can't be used on subscriptions, proving that some don't believe in the value of 'uncontrolled' reading. Too bad the district stands up for having sample state tests printed in the paper instead of for the positive features of having a daily newspaper in family homes. Nobody here seems to believe in the value of developing the habit of READING the paper.

By Karen Ayres Smith

Lancaster families soon will begin receiving copies of the Lancaster Today
newspaper paid for by the school system, but the district's plan to cover
part of the cost with federal grants is raising questions.

The school board voted late Monday night to spend $62,500 to buy
subscriptions for families with students in the district from Dec. 1 until
the end of August. The price tag will grow to $90,000 for the full 2008-09
year.

Under the plan, about one-third of the subscription costs each year will be
paid for with money from the federal Title I program, which aims to improve
academics for low-income students.

DeEtta Culbertson, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman, said the district
can spend the money now, but Lancaster officials will have to prove to the
state that the subscriptions improved student achievement at the end of the
year.

District officials say the newspaper partnership will boost parental
involvement and help educate students.

"We'll use it as a communication tool and as an instructional piece," said
Teri Wilson, the district's communication director.

But Leigh Manasevit, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who specializes
in federal education law, said the funding plan raises questions about
whether subscriptions truly benefit the educational program as required by
Title I.

"I would be very concerned about that," Mr. Manasevit said. "You have a lot
of hurdles to justify that under Title I."

Guidelines posted by TEA on its Web site say federal grant money can be
spent on public relations related to grant awards and issues of "public
concern," such as financial matters. TEA administers Title I for Texas
schools.

The cost of public relations designed solely to promote the district are
unallowable, the guidelines state.

The district plans for the newspaper to replace newsletters that it used to
send parents six times a year. Staff and students will submit articles to
run alongside stories written by the newspaper's staff.

"The purpose of the partnership is to strengthen community engagement," Ms.
Wilson told the school board Monday night. "We believe it will provide a
better public relations opportunity for our community."

Superintendent Larry Lewis and Ms. Wilson made an extensive presentation to
the board, contending that the program will improve teaching and learning.
For example, the district plans to post sample state test questions in the
paper.

"We can't be afraid of living the life of the impossible," Dr. Lewis said.
"We're trying to go to a place where a majority minority school system has
never gone, and that is academic excellence for every kid. We can't be
afraid of being first."

The district has come under increased media scrutiny in recent months since
Dr. Lewis proposed ? then withdrew ? a plan to start a four-day school week.
TEA is currently auditing the district because of financial concerns.

Dr. Lewis said a staff member at TEA's Region 10 service center told him
Monday that the district could use federal funds to buy the subscriptions.
The staff member was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

"We have done our homework with the federal government as well as our local
budget," Dr. Lewis told the board.

Dr. Lewis and officials with the Today Newspaper chain say the arrangement
calls for the paper to provide balanced coverage of the district. The
district can cancel the subscriptions with 60 days' notice.

"There is no quid pro quo here with the Lancaster Today newspaper," Dr.
Lewis said. "We want them to report fairly and accurately. If we mess up, we
want them to report our mess-ups."

The plan will quintuple the current circulation of Lancaster Today , which
resumed publication only recently after a 10-month hiatus.

Four school board members voted in favor of the plan. Marjorie King and
Carolyn Morris voted against it. Marie Elliott abstained.

Dr. King said she doesn't believe the program will necessarily change
perceptions about the district: "It seems to me if we are buying 84 percent
of the paper's distribution, few people are going to believe ? especially
with the 60-day opt-out clause ? that the paper would actually put anything
negative in it."

— Karen Ayres Smith
Dallas Morning News
2007-11-06


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