It was a sibling spat that brought Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg to Miles Avenue Elementary School on Wednesday morning.
His sister, Shanna Henry, is principal at the school and during a weekly family dinner last Sunday the two were discussing the merits of federal Title I funding in public education.
“It got a little heated,” she said with a smile. “It got a little tense.”
So the two decided Rehberg would visit Henry’s school, where he could see Title I dollars in action and get a better understanding of how they’re used.
“I still listen to my sister. I’ve got the scars to prove it,” he quipped.
Title I funding for a school is based on the percentage of students who, based on family income, qualify for free and reduced-price meals. School District 2 receives its portion through the state and then decides which schools will get the funding.
At Miles Avenue, 55 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. This year, the school received about $146,000 in Title I money, down from $153,000 last year.
Henry said once her school is given the money, she has the discretion to spend it how she sees fit.
The school uses it to buy computer programs that help students struggling with reading and writing, and to hire teaching aides to work with small groups.
Henry was accompanied by Brenda Koch, the district’s new executive director for the kindergarten through 12th grade schools on the east side of Billings.
Rehberg asked the pair pointed questions about fraud and whether families ever dupe the free and reduced-price meal system.
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Koch explained that each year, a random sample of families who sign up and qualify are audited by the district to make sure they meet the income guidelines.
On top of that, she said, the district is audited by the state every year on how its Title I dollars are spent.
“And that’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing,” she said. “Those funds are just crucial to our schools.”
Rehberg is chairman of the House subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education and is eager to make sure the funds he oversees are spent correctly.
“I’d like to punish those systems that rip the taxpayers off,” he said.
As he toured the school, Henry led Rehberg through the classrooms where the Title I-purchased education intervention programs were in use.
She also showed him reading and writing test scores that underscored the programs’ effectiveness.
“It was a good thing” having him visit, Henry said.
Walking out of the school, Rehberg agreed. He said as a congressman in his office in Washington, D.C., he sees the numbers, the statistics and balance sheets.
“But you gotta see it and touch it and smell it,” he said. “It makes it real.”