School Committee member Patty Nolan has asked for years for details on federal Title I grant disbursement in Cambridge. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

The threat of putting the brakes on the flow of $1 million in federal grant money finally got School Committee member Patty Nolan some of the answers she’s been seeking on the logic behind how those funds are distributed in Cambridge’s public schools.

After at least five years of asking for details on the district process determining how much of federal Title I grants, distributed through state government, goes to each school – and each year seeing the motion for transfer come without those details – Nolan tabled the funding motion Sept. 5, then reversed the action after whispered consultations with officials because she didn’t “want to risk the payment of salaries.”

On Tuesday, she got the start of her answers.

Title I funds, which pay for support staff at “local education agencies” serving low-income families, come in a block grant to each district. Cambridge used to get $2 million annually from Title I; recently it’s closer to $1 million. This drop, Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner said, is due to federal cutbacks, Massachusetts’ relatively low poverty rate within the country; and to Cambridge schools’ relative poverty rate across the state. (In addition, regulations require Cambridge to set aside 1 percent for family engagement, and to provide some Title I funds to private and parochial schools that enroll Cambridge students – this year totaling $32,500.)

Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Maryann MacDonald explained that the district first ranks all the elementary schools based on the percentage of students who qualify as low-income in each school. This year Cambridge’s cutoff for funds was a 35 percent poverty rate. Cambridge chooses to use free- or reduced-lunch qualification as its measure; the state’s new measure for “economically disadvantaged” is narrower.

As a result of the interplay between percentage and actual numbers, she and Nolan pointed out, there may be some schools that have more low-income students but receive less Title I funds than schools with fewer low-income students. (For example, the King Open School has more low-income students than the Morse School, but gets half the Title I funds.)

Funds are distributed to the schools, ostensibly based on the actual number of low-income students, although the per-pupil rate ranges from $391 at the Peabody School to $687 at Fletcher Maynard Academy. The only requirement is that the ranking of dollar amounts matches the ranking of poverty.

Nolan has also pointed out that the upper schools, all with higher rates of low-income/free- and reduced-lunch students than elementary schools, get no Title I funds. MacDonald emphasized the district’s commitment to third-grade reading levels as a key academic measure which, she said, justified the focus of Title I funds on elementary schools over upper schools.

Title I funds also are part of an overall support package, MacDonald said. The district’s selection of Title I schools includes consideration of other supports, such as educational coaches and interventionists. Three upper schools, she said – Putnam Avenue, Cambridge Street and Vassal Lane – each get $10,000 for before- and after-school programs based on their poverty rates.

Nolan thanked MacDonald for the information, and said she looked forward to more evaluation this year. “With 90 percent of Title I resources going to the lower schools when we know the upper schools have had some real challenges,” she said, more analysis will “help evaluate the effectiveness.”

Member Emily Dexter agreed and tied the discussion directly to an upcoming elementary program review, which begins with a consulting contract that members approved Tuesday to look at comparative resources in the schools. “A lot of these dollars are represented by staff,” she said. “The Fletcher Maynard Academy is a real success story. That school has the most staff per student and the most staff per low-income student” of any school in the district, she said. Many schools are combining dollars and resources from a variety of places for their work, and some use School Improvement Funds for staff, which is not what they are intended for, she said. Like Nolan, she welcomed the upcoming review comparing apples to apples across the schools.

Advanced learners, trades education

The committee agreed unanimously to pass a motion by Nolan and Fantini that the administration report by the end of October on “how the district is meeting the needs of advanced learners” since academic challenge manager Paula Feynman left in spring of the 2016-17 school year to pursue other work. Former Assistant Superintendent Victoria Greer, who departed this summer, was the only senior administrator with direct experience running an advanced-learner program in her previous job.

Member Richard Harding seemed uncertain of the need for the study: “I have a question about the language. ‘How the district is meeting the needs of advanced learners’ sounds as though we don’t,” he said, somewhat disbelieving. Member of the Parent Advisory Group for Advance Learning Jacob Barandes tried to speak on the topic during public comment, but was stopped by Mayor E. Denise Simmons when he tried to read a pledge his group was putting to each candidate for School Committee in the Nov. 7 election. Nothing related to politics or campaigns is allowed at committee meeting, she said. Barandes was either unwilling or unable to rephrase his comments, and left the speaker’s table.

Also passed unanimously were a motion by Simmons and members Kathleen Kelly and Fred Fantini to “establish a comprehensive and robust skilled labor trades program” and promotion plan, with several members enthusiastically supporting an enhanced program to put Cambridge students in well-paid trade jobs as an option to college. “We need to reinvest in our Rindge School of Technical Arts program,” Simmons said. “This used to be the pride and joy of this district, and I think we need to reinvent that.”

Other business

The committee also passed a Dexter and Nolan motion to have the governance subcommittee, chaired by Fantini, explore whether to allow committee roundtables to be videotaped and broadcast – currently prohibited. The motion noted that the City Council has recently changed their laws to allow broadcast.

Dexter tabled her own motion requesting that the administration provide student achievement data by specific demographic groups. Currently, the only public data is not disaggregated: for example, there’s data on all third-graders, all third-grade African-Americans or all third-grade girls, the motion notes, but not on third-grade African-American girls. Only school administrators have access to that data. But Dexter uttered the words “I will table this” before commenting on the motion, leading to Simmons preventing her from saying anything else on the topic.

It’s an unusual application of the rules. Simmons usually hears a motion on tabling a motion and allows comment on it before closing the topic.

A late order by Harding asked Superintendent Kenneth Salim for an update on the Chromebooks being widely used at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School this year. Harding said he had heard from some students that there was difficulty getting access to the high school’s Wi-Fi. The distribution of Chromebooks to each of 500 first-year students is set to begin next week; families are asked to attend a half-hour information session, most scheduled during school hours.

Also passed: Approval to request family addresses for alerts on the school selection lottery; and approval of head-injury policy revisions. Also: contracts of $650,000 for special education out-of-district tuition; $25,000 for special education-related professional development; and $50,000 for consulting services to the same company; $39,000 to begin assessing comparative resource allocation across the elementary schools; $71,000 toward the Aspen student information computer system; $50,000 for special-education assessment materials; $73,000 to the Cambridge Public Health Department for nursing services; $100,000 to CitySprouts; $50,000 for classroom furniture and $164,000 for CRLS Work Force, summer college and summer literacy programs. Members approved a $10,000 grant for the new Design Innovation Lab and $6,000 from Harvard University toward mobile devices for a wetland science project.