Oregon NAACP leaders say the Oregon Department of Education unfairly allocated millions of taxpayer dollars meant to help African-American students statewide succeed.
The Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2016 in 2015, earmarking nearly $2.7 million in general funds that ended up being divided between four Portland-based programs serving black students and their families.
Lawmakers allocated an additional $1 million for administrative costs.
But NAACP leaders say groups statewide were not given adequate time to apply for the grants and that the money was not equitably distributed across the state as the Legislature required.
NAACP leaders also believe the grant winners had an unfair advantage because they had representatives on the program’s advisory committee, although not in any decision-making capacity.
The recipients were announced in 2016: The African American/Black Student Success Plan of Multnomah County, the Black/African Student Success Project, From Bars to Bridges Project and the REAP Expansion Project.
After a review of the programs in 2017, state leaders, including House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, spoke in favor of reallocating money to the same groups to achieve further improvements. The state approved the funding and increased the amount to about $5 million to satisfy the length of the biennium-based budget.
“African American/Black students exist across this state,” Benny Williams, president of the Salem Keizer NAACP, wrote in an email to Colt Gill, acting superintendent for the state.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that they struggle,” he wrote. “It’s a travesty that they must continue to do so when the acknowledgment and assistance that has been promised is being toyed with.”
In response, the department conducted an investigatory review of the grant programs and reported no errors. State education leaders insist this has been an equitable program, saying 875 students were directly served in the first year.
The state did offer a new grant opportunity totaling $650,000 for programs outside of Portland. But NAACP leaders argue the smaller sum is insufficient.
“The Department of Education believes that the appropriations by the Legislature are a good start to beginning to address the needs of African American/Black students across the state,” Cindy Hunt, acting chief of staff for the department, told the Statesman Journal.
Gill was not available for comment.
“The requirements for allocating new grants are specifically engineered to ensure geographic diversity of grant recipients,” Hunt said.
After two years of heated conversations, the discussion is careening toward a state administrative hearing Tuesday that may change the nature of any future debate.
Not just Portland
Though Oregon’s racial achievement gap has decreased in recent years, students of color still graduate at lower rates, drop out at higher rates, perform worse on standardized tests and are disciplined more frequently.
“Historical and persistent challenges facing African American/Black students negatively impact … education, business development, housing and employment opportunities and social and economic growth for the state of Oregon,” according to the program’s grant description.
NAACP officials agree there is a need for additional funding to support black students and their families.
However, when more than $2 million was only awarded to Portland-based groups, some began to question the fairness of the program.
“The (plan) is necessary,” wrote Williams and Reg Hendrix, Salem Keizer NAACP vice president, in a letter to the department. “Even more necessary is its ethical, equitable and vigorous implementation.”
And the request for grant proposals states: “Grant awards will take into consideration the geographic location of applicants to ensure representation throughout the state.”
In the first round of grants in 2016, the Salem Keizer NAACP planned to submit a proposal, but missed the deadline. They later were told there were 12 proposals, two of which were rejected outright. Of the 10 remaining, the four were selected, Williams said.
Leaders of all four NAACP branches in the state, including Portland’s president, Jo Ann Hardesty, voiced their concerns.
After writing multiple emails and letters, and meeting with state officials and legislators, NAACP leaders wrote they “have not yielded any significant change in practice from the ODE that would allocate resources more equitably.”
“This plan is being thwarted by the imbalanced funding approach the ODE is consistently insisting upon making, allocating millions of dollars to less than a hand full of recipients, serving a hand full of schools and leaving African American students throughout the remaining 33 counties without any financial resource to speak of,” Williams and Hendrix wrote.
Acting Superintendent Gill issued an investigative report at the end of 2017, looking into how well the department was managing and implementing the grants. The report concluded the department made no errors.
Williams told the Statesman Journal the state has yet to answer how the allocation of the original money is equitable since it does not serve students statewide.
Hunt said Gill has directed staff, in consultation with the advisory group and other stakeholders, to develop a budget proposal for the 2019-21 biennium.
This proposal would “build upon the efforts of educational entities and community-based organizations to address the needs of African American/Black students across the state,” she said.
Only a fraction of students benefit
NAACP leaders also took issue with the number of students served by the grant recipients.
In its first year, the grants directly benefited 875 students, according to the education department. That’s out of the 10,839 African American/Black students living in the Portland metro area in 2016-17.
These students make up 80 percent of all black students in Oregon, with an additional 2,815 students living throughout the state. About 10 percent attend school in the Salem and Eugene metro areas.
Lawmakers, such as House Speaker Kotek, argued the four Portland groups have done well and should be invested in again.
According to the first-year evaluations, the African American/Black Student Success Plan of Multnomah County provided students with in-school and parent coordinators. The Black/African Student Success Project provided culturally responsive learning for students and parental support.
Additionally, the From Bars to Bridges Project provided detained youth with transition specialists who connected them back to their schools and communities after re-entry. And the REAP Expansion Project introduced leadership and restorative justice programming to three school districts.
“If we are making progress with the current grantees, it doesn’t make sense to go out for a whole new bid for a whole bunch of new grants,” Kotek said in a meeting with the advisory group on April 7, 2017.
“Ideally, if we are working with freshmen, I want to continue working with the freshmen all the way to graduation,” she said. “That’s how we make sure that we have full success.”
This past summer, the same four groups were awarded $5,233,127 for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.
In an email exchange with Kotek, Legislative Fiscal Officer Doug Wilson wrote that the groups were awarded “roughly twice the amount they received in 2015-17” so as to recognize “the funds were only available for the second year of the … biennium.”
$650,000 versus $5.23 million
In an attempt to help non-Portland groups, the Department of Education offered $650,000 for other regions across the state, requesting applications beginning in September 2017.
But the money came with additional restrictions. Unlike the original grant program, the new one specified no one region could receive more than $250,000.
This money has yet to be allocated because administrative rules in the original bill need to be adjusted to add more recipients.
The Salem Keizer NAACP has applied for a grant on behalf of the African American Youth Leadership Conference.
State officials say rule changes would “ensure geographic diversity of awards and strengthen partnerships across the state.”
NAACP leaders argue this is still not acceptable.
After a meeting Friday with Gill and Darryl Tukufu of the state’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, NAACP Vice President Hendrix said little to no change was made.
“At the end of the day, the response has been the same,” he said. “It appears … the Legislature has more sway on how the money is spent than the agency.”
At an administrative hearing Tuesday, the state Board of Education will discuss whether more organizations should be able to receive money. The hearing will be at 1 p.m., Jan. 16 at 255 Capitol St. NE, room 400A.
The state board likely will vote at a hearing Thursday, Jan. 18, to adopt or not adopt the amendments.
If adopted, the department is scheduled to announce the recipients of the $650,000 in grants on January 22. And the advisory committee dedicated to providing guidance on the plan is scheduled to meet Friday, Feb. 2.
All three of these meetings are open to the public.