With $120 million in deferred maintenance needed at the two dozen schools in Billings, district officials thought they would be a shoo-in for a handful of improvement grants worth about $1 million being offered by the state.
In the last round of Montana’s Quality Schools Grant handouts, however, Billings School District 2 was shut out, and that has left district officials wondering what happened.
“I’m just kind of befuddled by this,” said Jack Copps, district superintendent. “I’m convinced we made the best possible effort.”
State officials say the district didn’t do its best and was denied because it didn’t fill out its grant applications correctly.
Rich Whitney, SD2’s director of facilities maintenance, wrote the applications. He and Copps felt confident they had submitted what was required. Still, they said they’re willing to take their lumps and learn from the process if they were wrong.
“I don’t mind the scolding if we really deserve this,” Copps said.
But both Copps and Whitney question the process and wonder if the program could be improved.
The competitive grants come from $10 million in federal stimulus money given to Montana. It’s distributed to individual school districts by the state Department of Commerce.
Districts submit applications, which are scored on their content, and then Commerce doles out the money based on which districts ranked the highest. Commerce has modeled the program on its Treasure State Endowment Program, which awards grants to cities to improve deteriorating infrastructure.
Commerce has long awarded grants to various public entities around the state. Officials there said they’re confident in the process.
“That’s what we do,” said Kelly Casillas, administrator of the community development division for the Department of Commerce. “We’re very good at it.”
Billings scored zeroes across one section of its four applications, which dropped the district to the bottom of the application list and forced it out of the running. SD2 leaders pressed Commerce for a reason they received zeroes and were told they hadn’t included an energy audit with their applications.
In the 40 pages of instruction explaining the grant application process, one section tells districts they “may include” an energy audit. The district chose not to — it had submitted the energy audit to Commerce last year for another grant. So instead, the application referred officials to the audit on file.
District officials figured Commerce wouldn’t need multiple copies of a study it already had.
However, Casillas said Commerce was never given the full audit. The one on file is a three-page abstract of an energy evaluation from another project, she said. In short, she said the material submitted by Billings was “way down the list in terms of quality of the applications.”
Copps has complained that once SD2’s applications were filed, there was no word from Commerce that the district needed to include a copy of the energy audit.
“If (SD2) were in Helena, there would have been communications,” he said.
Casillas said dozens of letters went out to applicants across the state, including School District 2, informing them of what they lacked.
However, Copps and Whitney say no notification ever came to Billings informing officials specifically of the missing energy audit.
“I just have to wonder about the motivation that’s there,” Copps said.
For Copps and Whitney, the miscommunication on the energy audit highlights the problem School District 2 has had dealing with Commerce.
Whitney said he repeatedly called Commerce for assistance in filling out the grant applications and, while he was always able to get someone on the phone, he was never able to find someone who could answer his questions completely.
The Department of Commerce disputes that claim, saying Whitney called twice, the Thursday and Friday before the Monday deadline for filing the applications, which was March 1.
Copps said Whitney did everything he thought was needed to get the applications in complete. But Copps was quick to point out that the district has no full-time grant writer and that Whitney’s time is limited — he’s in charge of maintaining 1 million square feet of building space throughout the district.
But more to the point, SD2 officials wonder if the Treasure State Endowment Program is the best model for awarding school grants.
Nowhere in the application are districts asked to show a project’s educational impact. For an indoor lighting project — one was proposed at Arrowhead Elementary — the district needed an environmental review of the project. An environmental review makes sense for cities competing for sewage repair grants but not for school indoor lighting projects, Copps said.
“It’s the Office of Public Instruction and (its) knowledge of schools that should have had a large hand in this,” Copps said.
However, OPI said Commerce was given discretion over the grant money specifically because Commerce deals with maintenance project grants.
“They have experience in infrastructure grants,” said Jessica Rhoades, OPI’s communications director.
State funding has long frustrated officials at School District 2. Despite being the largest school district in Montana, Billings sits near the bottom of the list of per-student funding.
“We’re just expected to do it with less,” Whitney said. “At some point, the state’s got to say, ‘We’re here to support Billings, too.’ ”
A new round of grants will become available this summer — each district is eligible for funding on one project. The deadline is June 18.
Casillas said she hopes SD2 will apply.
“I would really love to see a good application from Billings,” she said.
District officials plan to apply and hope they’ll have more luck this time.
“Me and the district will do anything the Department of Commerce wants to satisfy the requirements,” Whitney said.
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or 657-1231.