Few Rules, Little Oversight For $11 Million Open Choice Program

/

Each year the state writes a check for more than $11 million that is shared among 13 school districts as compensation for accepting 2,242 students from Hartford into their schools. That money – called the Open Choice grant – arrives after local school budgets are finalized and comes with no specific guidelines for its use, according to the State Department of Education.

“Open choice is essentially an entitlement grant. We don’t track the district’s expenditures,” said Peter Yazbak, the director of communications for the State Department of Education. “Open choice grants go to districts in the form of revenue like the Education Cost Sharing grant. While there is end of year reporting on things like how much the state covers for transportation, it’s not a detailed breakdown of expenditures from the district’s end.”

A superintendent in Cromwell or Portland, for example, each year is given more than half a million dollars, with little oversight from the local board of education or the state on how that money should be spent.

“It was just a huge slush fund to do what you wanted with,” said John Maloney, a former principal and superintendent in Cromwell who resigned in June 2019. “The reality is, to me, it was an abuse of funds.” 

“Open choice is essentially an entitlement grant. We don’t track the district’s expenditures,” said Peter Yazbak, the director of communications for the State Department of Education.

And not just Cromwell and Portland, also Avon, Berlin, Bolton, Canton, East Granby, East Windsor, Ellington, Enfield, Farmington, Glastonbury, Granby, Hartford, Newington, Plainville, Rocky Hill, Simsbury, Somers, Southington, South Windsor, Suffield, Tolland, Vernon, West Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor Locks participate in the Open Choice program and enroll students from Hartford. 

Bridgeport and New Haven also operate Open Choice programs of their own, although on a significantly smaller scale than Hartford’s program. 

In Portland, Open Choice students make up 4.5 percent of the student population, meaning that each student brings the district $8,000 annually, according to the department of education. In Cromwell, the math is similar: 72 Open Choice students, just under 4 percent of the student population. The district received $548,891 in compensation in 2018-19 according to the district’s expense reports.

“It was just a huge slush fund to do what you wanted with,” said John Maloney, a former principal and superintendent in Cromwell who resigned in June 2019. “The reality is, to me, it was an abuse of funds.”

“Yes, it clearly helps the town of Portland, it’s a half million dollars,” said Philip O’Reilly, superintendent of schools in Portland, where 72 Open Choice students are currently bussed each day. “But it’s driven by our desire for equity of opportunity. The money is more a bonus.”

According to Maloney, it’s a bonus that was often inappropriately used.

“The common refrain [from superintendents] was that it’s your money for agreeing to take these kids. The board doesn’t even need to know about the grant,” Maloney said. “It felt disingenuous, almost like human trading. It became, give me three more kids in pre-k so I can get bumped up to 4 percent and get $8,000 per student instead of $6000.”

The amount of grant funding each district receives is determined by the number of student placements, as well as by the percent of the student body made up of Open Choice students.

“Yes, it clearly helps the town of Portland, it’s a half million dollars,” said Philip O’Reilly, superintendent of schools in Portland, where 72 Open Choice students are currently bussed each day. “But it’s driven by our desire for equity of opportunity. The money is more a bonus.”

“The state pays a grant of $3,000 per student enrolled, if the number of Open Choice students is less than 2 percent of the total population of the receiving district; $4,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is greater than or equal to 2 percent but less than 3 percent of the total population of the receiving district; or $6,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is greater than or equal to 3 percent but less than 4 percent of the total population of the receiving district; and $8,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is greater than or equal to 4 percent of the total student population of the receiving district,” Yazbak said.

According to O’Reilly, Portland primarily uses the grant for personnel expenditures, including reading and math intervention specialists. The money is also used to pay for Cromwell students attending magnet schools in Hartford.

“These are extra services for our students that really help our kids,” O’Reilly said. “The intervention money is for all students, but clearly it benefits those kids from Hartford.”

“There are revenue streams coming into these districts that are not apparent to the general public. What’s more, I’ve experienced the lack of oversight regarding these funds. While the reporting practices may do enough to pass the test of appropriate use, time and again, I’ve seen the account used as a private purse for superintendents and board of education chairs,” said Krista Karch, a former teacher in Portland and assistant superintendent in Cromwell

But Open Choice grant funding is not spent in a consistent fashion across the 13 districts receiving compensation from the state. In the case of Cromwell, financial documents from 2012 through 2019 show spending for teacher bonuses above and beyond the union contract, as well as for instructional equipment, for summer pay, and for a $60,000 or more annual payment to the central office. 

Some full-time positions, including those for special education services, are paid for entirely out of the grant money, such as a $60,000 expense for a teacher’s salary and multiple teaching assistants for between $20,000 and $70,000 each.

“There are revenue streams coming into these districts that are not apparent to the general public. What’s more, I’ve experienced the lack of oversight regarding these funds. While the reporting practices may do enough to pass the test of appropriate use, time and again, I’ve seen the account used as a private purse for superintendents and board of education chairs,” said Krista Karch, a former teacher in Portland and assistant superintendent in Cromwell who resigned at the same time as Maloney. “Meanwhile, the direct impact to student success is minimal at best.”

The $3,000 to $8,000 per student compensation is less than the average per student costs for a school district, but Maloney explained that most of the per pupil costs are fixed and are not altered much, if at all, by 72 additional students distributed over 13 grades. 

The only grant money the district is required to document in detail is the amount spent on school transportation to and from students’ homes in Hartford, Bridgeport or New Haven. That expense is reimbursed separately by the state. According to the Department of Education, the state has spent $7,166,214 for transportation during the 2019-2020 school year.

Latest from Education