Members of the Wellington Village Council directed staff Tuesday to look into creating an education grant program that would funnel up to $275,000 into Wellington’s public schools to boost reading and math initiatives.
Local equestrian Victoria McCullough offered a matching grant through her foundation, which would be spent to help students who are among the lowest in reading and math.
“I was one of those kids,” McCullough said. “I would never have succeeded [in school] if a wonderful teacher hadn’t found that I was stumbling.”
The topic was raised by members of the Wellington Education Committee, who hoped to bring back similar grant programs financed in years past: the Reading Challenge Grant and the Student Enrichment Program.
Both were suspended in 2009 because of budget woes. The Reading Challenge Grant awarded each elementary school in Wellington $25,000 annually geared toward reading programs, while the Student Enrichment Program gave schools $5 per Wellington student.
Wellington Education Committee Vice Chair Michelle McGovern told council members that the new grant program, as proposed, would allow Wellington public schools to apply for up to $25,000.
“It would allow schools to apply for a grant based on their specific needs in math or reading for students performing below grade level,” she said. “Our hope is this program will provide the additional support and flexibility for our schools to meet the standards required by the state and the district.”
McGovern noted that schools receiving Title I financing — those with a high level of low-income students — already receive federal funds to help the lowest 25 percent of students.
“Our schools, none of which are considered Title I, are required to give the same student support without the dollars to back them up,” she said. “We believe that $25,000 per school would really help them make the impact that they need.”
In the face of slashed school budgets due to county and state cuts, Wellington’s schools remain among the top in the county, making the community an attractive place for families, she said.
“Wellington schools are working hard to be as good as they can be, and they deserve our support,” McGovern said.
The schools would have to submit a council-approved application, McGovern said, and make a presentation before the Education Committee to receive the grant.
“The schools will present outcomes of the funding to the committee at the end of each school year,” she added.
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent said the school district fully supports the idea. “The opportunity to work with you to better the schools is very important to us,” he said. “If the council chooses to approve the grant, it’s something we support 100 percent.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig liked the measure but thought schools could use the money for more than just their lowest-performing students. “I’d rather have the schools tell me what they need,” she said. “I would rather see it be driven by the needs of the school.”
Gent said that input from the principal of each school would be crucial. “I think there needs to be flexibility for the principals to meet the needs of the individual schools,” he said.
But McGovern said the goal was to equalize the financing across all schools by targeting the grant at helping low-performing students.
“We didn’t want there to be any thought that one school asked for a jungle gym while another asked for books,” she said. “It would be an equalizer. For all of our schools, the effort is to lift up the low-performing students.”
Councilman Matt Willhite said he believed that helping the schools would add value to the community.
“I think it’s something we should seriously look at,” he said. “I like the idea of this grant being based on curriculum. There are children who don’t have those abilities, and this would help them to raise their grades.”
He pointed out that principals would have the option to apply for help in reading and/or math, and could tailor the application to help the school meet the needs of its students.
Willhite asked Gent whether the program funding Wellington schools might mean the school district would trim financing in response. “If the Village of Wellington was to fund this grant program, would you find it in your budget to shorten the school’s budget in Wellington to offset that amount?” he asked.
Gent said he would “absolutely not” cut the budget of Wellington’s schools because of that.
Gerwig said she was under the impression that in the past, the district did cut some financing because of Wellington’s grant programs. “The district saw that we were providing funding so they felt they didn’t have to,” she said.
McGovern said that in the past, the grants helped to bring in a part-time reading instructor at the elementary schools.
“At that time, the school district funded the other part, to make it a full-time position,” she said. “At some point, the district decided that they no longer could afford the part-time position and pulled back.”
Vice Mayor Howard Coates was concerned that taxpayers already pay the school district to finance their children’s education.
“Are we getting something more from the school board than we would be getting?” he asked. “Or are we simply funding an obligation that was the school board’s responsibility to begin with?”
McGovern said the money would help make up for budget shortfalls. She pointed to Binks Forest Elementary School.
“If Binks Forest was a Title I school, they would receive about $25,000 worth of books to help their kids reading below grade level,” she said. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the $25,000 and they have to go out and raise it. Piece by piece [they are] putting together the money to buy another set of books. It’s a set of books they have to have, but they have to go out and raise the money for it.”
Coates asked why the school board wasn’t providing that money. “If it’s so important, why is the school board not providing it?” he asked.
McGovern said the district did not have the money. “We feel like there is a need here in our schools,” McGovern said. “And we feel that there is an opportunity for us to support them.”
School Board Member Marcia Andrews also spoke in support of the measure. “We have great schools here in the Village of Wellington, and anything we can do to uplift all of our children is very important,” she said. “I think this will make a difference.”
Willhite made a motion to direct staff to try to work the money into the budget, which passed unanimously.
Gerwig suggested naming the grant after the late Keely Spinelli, former principal of Binks Forest Elementary School who died in 2008. “She was an incredible and energetic woman who dedicated herself to those 25 percent of students,” Gerwig said. “The pictures on the walls in her office were of the kids in that 25 percent. Her heart was in it to impact them.”
Village Manager Paul Schofield said the item would come back before the council, probably during budget hearings.