By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer
Creek Elementary students get a healthy boost this year with $42,000 in fitness equipment funded by the Jimmie Johnson Foundation.
Students can pull themselves up on chin-up bars, balance on beams, grasp their way across monkey bars, then rest in a shady pavilion.
Muskogee Public Schools officials are looking for ways to help the district’s other seven elementary schools get similar boosts from outside sources such as grants.
“When we have this school getting a ton of money and this other school isn’t, we need to assist them,” Muskogee School Superintendent Mike Garde said. “Or we need to get with the school principals to guide them, to see what help we can give them.”
Giving each school an equal dip in the grant pool has been a daunting task.
The district adopted a regulation in the 2013 school year stating that each of Muskogee’s eight elementary schools cannot receive more than $34,000 — or 1 percent of the schools’ average general fund allocation — more than once every three years. Under that regulation, Creek could get up to $34,000 a year in 2014 and 2015, but could not get more money than that until 2016. The regulation was in effect until earlier this month.
Garde said officials decided last week the 1 percent cap “was just too limiting.”
The threshold was raised from 1 to 5 percent of the average general fund allocation — or $175,000 a year, Garde said.
“The purpose is just to make sure all schools are being funded equally,” he said.
Garde said the regulation covers outside funding sources including major benefactors such as the Jimmie Johnson Foundation or the City of Muskogee Foundation, as well as competitive grants.
He said the regulation also applies to grants from the Muskogee Education Foundation, which awards grants on a “blind” basis, meaning the people making the grant do not see the name of the school.
The grant regulation does not apply to individual school fundraisers, Garde said.
The threshold is part of the district’s effort to ensure that each of Muskogee’s eight elementary schools get an equal shot at resources, said Muskogee Public Schools Chief Financial Officer John Little. The regulation does not apply to secondary schools, Sadler Arts Academy, Ben Franklin Science Academy or the Early Childhood Center, he said.
“It’s simple to me. Kids should be treated equally regardless of the school,” Little said. “Whether it be staff, resources or color. You can’t have schools with all the experienced teachers. You shouldn’t have schools that get all the grants.”
School records show Creek received a total of $44,130 from outside sources for the 2013 school year. This included the $42,696 grant from the Jimmie Johnson Foundation for the fitness track. The remainder came from a Junior Achievement grant and part of a City of Muskogee Foundation grant, Little said.
In contrast, Cherokee received $1,300 for 2013, Little said.
“Notice the difference between the two schools?” he said. “Poverty, the make up of kids, the neighborhood. Look at how much Cherokee got in grants — $1,300. Creek, which is our most affluent school gets, $44,000.”
In the 2012 school year, 66 percent of Creek Elementary students and 91 percent of Cherokee Elementary students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. The district average was 77 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch. The state average was 61 percent eligible for free and reduced lunches.
The records show that Grant Foreman Elementary received $770 from outside funding for 2013. Grant Foreman had 76 percent of its students on free or reduced lunches in 2012.
Little said guidelines for maintaining comparability of grants “have been out there for a while.”
“It’s under Title 1,” he said, referring to a federal education program designed to ensure all children have a fair and equal opportunity to get a good education. Many MPS programs and several staff positions are funded through Title I.
Several large school districts said they do not have grant regulations. Bartlesville Public Schools community relations coordinator Chris Tanea said there are no limits on what the district’s six elementary schools can receive from outside sources. He said grants are reviewed “on a case by case basis.”
Creek Elementary School Principal Rick Hoos said work on the new fitness set-up was finished right before school started. He said he wrote the grant application with help from Creek’s physical education teacher.
After it was installed, Hoos discovered how much students needed the fitness equipment.
“I was observing boys on the chin-up bar and they could not pull themselves up,” Hoos said. “It goes along with developing upper body strength.”
It was the second grant Creek has received from the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. In the 2010 school year, Creek received a $31,684 grant to build a reading lab and refurbish its old space shuttle classroom.
MPS has received more than $580,000 in Champions Grants from the Foundation since the program’s inception in 2009. Johnson, a NASCAR driver, awards grants to schools in Muskogee — his wife’s hometown — and to schools in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., and his current home, San Diego. A spokesman for the foundation said it receives 60 to 80 grant requests from the three districts each year. In the 2013 school year, the foundation awarded 10 grants.
Several elementary schools have benefited from the program:
• Cherokee Elementary received $68,098 in the 2011 school year to develop a literacy program using technology and hands-on learning.
• Irving and Pershing Elementary School each received $25,000 for digital keyboard labs in 2012. Irving had 95 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch in 2012; Pershing had 89 percent.
• Tony Goetz received $25,038 in 2010 for blinds and shades to cover large classroom windows and $44,764 in 2011 for an outdoor classroom. Nearly 70 percent of its students qualified for free and reduced lunches.
• Harris-Jobe Elementary School received $51,303 in 2012 for a walking trail and outdoor learning environment; 88 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunches in 2012.
Grant Foreman and Whittier Elementary have not yet received such large grants. Whittier had 93 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunches in 2012.
The district is looking for other ways to make sure all schools have access to good grants.
“Typically, we have teachers who are great grant writers,” Garde said. “We do train them to make the applications. But writing a good grant is an art form. We have several people who are gifted at it.”
One such person is the district’s new elementary education director, Clevetta Gray, Garde said. As grant requests come in for cabinet review, Gray could help them write and prepare the applications, he said.
“If we have a school that has not written a grant, we need to intervene and help them get an application in,” Garde said.
Little said one solution is to move teachers around.
“The problem is people don’t want to move,” Little said. “A certain teacher is good at writing grants. Let’s say she’s at Creek — she wants to stay there.”
Hiring a position dedicated to solely writing grants might be difficult, he said.
“Where would you get the money?” he said. “It comes down to ‘Would you rather pay for a grant writer or pay for a teacher?’”
Reach Cathy Spaulding at (918) 684-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.