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Change in definition of economically disadvantaged could hurt at-risk student funding

Rick Wagner • Nov 21, 2016 at 1:00 PM

KINGSPORT — City school officials are somewhat optimistic but still concerned about a new definition of economically disadvantaged/at-risk students for Tennessee public schools this school year.

The issue is that the new definition is all but certain to reduce the number of students considered to be economically disadvantaged/at-risk. That could reduce state and federal funding for those students. However, Superintendent Lyle Ailshie said Tennessee education officials have said because the definition change is statewide, the state for its portion of funding will hold school systems harmless this first year of implementation.

During a Nov. 15 Board of Education work session, Lamar Smith, Kingsport City Schools supervisor of federal programs, said the old definition of being on a free or reduced meal program, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), has been switched to meeting direct certification. He said that means students must be on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, called TANF, but known as welfare; have been in Head Start; be homeless; be migrants; or be runaways in the custody of the state.

“Any of these will meet the definition now,” Smith told the board. The concern, he said, is that for the 2015-16 school year, Kingsport City Schools had 39 percent of students directly certified versus 53 percent eligible for free or reduced meals. 

Since this year’s numbers likely will vary in a similar fashion, he said the concern is that state Basic Education Program and federal title funds would be reduced.

“It’s one of those things I can’t tell you right now as far as funding,” Smith told the board.

Sullivan County school officials at a recent work session lamented the change and said they didn’t learn about it until a spring budget workshop. Sullivan officials said funding for at-risk students was increased but that it covers only students whose families get food stamps and other government assistance, whereas the old system paid for students who had applied for free or reduced meals. The number of eligible students on which funding is based fell to 3,339, that loss far offsetting the increased funding per at-risk students.

“That was a bit of a bomb on us,” Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said at the Oct. 27 work session. County BOE Chairman Michael Hughes asked how much notice about the change the system received, and business manager Ingrid DeLoach said she and Rafalowski learned of it during a spring finance meeting.

Back at the Kingsport school board meeting, BOE member Carrie Upshaw asked if the numbers might be markedly different simply because families hadn’t gotten or didn’t know they could get SNAP or TANF. Smith said yes and that the school system will work to help facilitate applications from families that might be eligible.

BOE Vice President Susan Lodal asked if the change in definitions will mean a reduction in free meal access, and Smith said he hopes it will not but that is a possibility.

The school board decided awhile back to give free meals to all students eligible for reduced price meals. In addition, under the federal Community Eligibility Provision, Jackson, Johnson, Kennedy, Lincoln and Roosevelt  elementary schools and Sevier Middle School provide all students free meals without applying for free or reduced status.

Ailshie said state officials have told school systems the funding formula will be adjusted for the state funds so no system loses funding the first year, although he said he thinks over time the directly certified students will be concentrated more in large metropolitan school systems.

“Right now it’s kind of a hold harmless,” Ailshie said.

Lodal asked why the redefinition came to Tennessee, and Smith said it was because some districts and states did a better job getting eligible folks directly certified and that high schools are historically under-reported for free and reduced meal eligibility. He said the change in definitions started in northeastern states about five years ago. 

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