Are Grants the Answer to School Funding?

By Laura Crist

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The City of Great Falls has passed only one levy in the past 11 years.

Local school levies help pay the portion of public school funding not covered by the State of Montana.

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Public school monies come from several sources: state, local property taxes, county, local non-tax, and federal. All sources of funding are needed to educate public school students to be successful adults.

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Even when only one source of funding is decreased or eliminated, our students are put at risk.

http://opi.mt.gov/Portals/182/Page%20Files/School%20Finance/Accounting/Guidance%20and%20Manuals/Tax%20Credits%20for%20Educational%20Donation/FY%202017/Understanding%20Montana%20School_Finance_FY_2018.pdf?ver=2018-06-04-101519-957

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Over the past decade of failed levies; programs, staff, teacher training, building budgets, departmental budgets, and administration have been cut.

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Some people feel we could have our school funding programs fixed if we applied for and utilized more grants.

Being interested in any solutions to be able to find ways to help fund our community’s education, I interviewed a grant expert, Erin Merchant.

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I learned that grants have pros and cons just like any decisions with money.

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Smaller grants, usually between $10,000-$50,000 dollars, are monies that are applied most often. These grants often cover staff development, workshops, and conferences to help to keep staff informed of current research and teaching methods.

These types of grants allow teachers to help with funding to cover areas of development that they are passionate about and want to continue learning about.

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With the past decade of cuts, many of our teacher development programs have been cut (i.e first, second, third-year training). I have heard many teachers share, “I would rather take a pay cut than lose this important training.”

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Truthfully, I am not sure how much more of a pay cut teachers could take, as many of our teachers are already working multiple jobs to make ends meet. We all recognize no one goes into teaching for the money.

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Being able to fund vital teacher development is what energizes, motivates, connects and influences teachers.

Merchant mentioned

“the decade of cuts has drastically cut high-quality professional development which is hurting our ability to retain teachers and recruit new hires.”

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For these reasons, Great Falls Public Schools often applies for the “smaller” grants to find ways to help improve teacher training and development.

“These small grants help us to partner with other schools across the state at conventions. They help us to stay informed about important issues like school safety, technology, new curriculums and specialized programs.” says Merchant.

One amazing grant that the school is currently a part of is YAMH (Youth Aware Mental Health). We are partnered with MSU center for mental health and Montana is one of only two states in the country trying out this new mental health program for teens that has been created in Europe.

This program was so successful in its first year that MSU agreed to continue training 2 teachers. A community partner generously paid for curriculum books and all seventh graders in our district get to participate in this life-changing/life-saving program.

Another huge success which was funded by a grant was the high school play, “Converge”. This play was a combined effort between all three high schools in Great Falls and allowed for the community, state and national awareness of mental health and the challenges many of our students are facing today.

Benefits from small grants are that they allow for more creativity, partnering, information and positive changes in our teaching.

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Large grants, defined as grants which are $100,000 to $3,000,000 plus are often federal grants.

These are offered by the National Department of Education, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMSA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Office of Juvenile Detention (OJDP) just to name a few of the many.

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The monies associated with these types of grants could possibly make up for a failed levy, but there is a downside.

These large grants can be very challenging. Once the grant is published there is a 30-day window for a school to apply.

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The application process is very intense and requires plans for budget, five-year plans, community partners, the curriculum in schools, goals and projected outcomes and partnerships with a university or research facility.

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Putting together these applications are exciting and very stressful. Hundreds of working hours are completed in the application process alone. There are extensive reporting and data collection which increases the workload on teachers and administrators.

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The general plan for large grants is grant writing, then implementation if the grant is awarded and reporting.

By the third year of a five year grant, most schools are looking for and working towards their next grant. There are often new curriculum resources, new technology and changes to teaching practices with grant implementation.

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These are not necessarily negative, but Merchant says that

“most of the time grants are between 30-50% a great fit and the rest requires a large amount of collaboration and extra effort.”

One of the biggest struggles with larger grants is the reality of sustainability.

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Often with large grants, personnel and teachers are hired. We must find the right people to hire but there is always the question about what we are going to do when the grant goes away in five years?

How do we maintain the program and personnel or will staff once again be cut and programs lost?

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“The day you hire, is the day you begin thinking about the end of employment for a large grant, “says Merchant. We have seen this stress and struggle within our Great Falls Public Schools Preschool, which is funded through these large grants.

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Preschool teacher, Ryan Beam compared schools being reliable on large grants is like living paycheck to paycheck.

“You never know how you are going to need to adapt or if you will have enough for tomorrow, let alone an emergency,” says Beam.

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Some options are to hire a grant writer to help take off the stress from school staff to apply for these larger grants. Grant writers typically cost $5,000-$10,000 a grant. Our schools and community must be ready and supportive to allow for a large grant to be successful in our schools.

Are we ready for something that would impact our whole community?

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But for the school district, the question is and has been, with budgets being so tight, is it better to spend this money on teacher development and helping our staff or do we spend it on the hopes of being chosen for a larger grant?

The reality is that we need our community to help.

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We need to vote in favor of school levies to help fund teacher development, training, conferences, programs, and resources.

The more we fund the levies, the more creative and informed our teachers can become.

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Our schools can’t rely solely on grants to make up the difference for failed levies – it just simply isn’t sustainable.

Our children and our community can thrive and grow if we continue to support, improve and develop each other.

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Public schools are the most impactful places of safety, learning, and consistency that we have in our town. Let’s help everyone dream big and become more by working together and doing our part to fund education.