Panel extends enrichment program contracts

Despite concerns, contracts totaling $2.2 million for after-school enrichment programs in Baton Rouge and elsewhere won approval Friday from a key state legislative panel.

The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget approved the spending only after a barrage of questions about how centers that get the money are performing, and why 10 of 15 of those reviewed are listed as on probation by the state Department of Education.

“I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling about all of this,” said state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville and chairman of the joint committee as well as the Senate Finance Committee.

Recipients of the aid, which relies on federal dollars, are called 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

They include nonprofit groups and schools that compete for three-year grants from the state to offer academic enrichment programs for students outside of normal hours, and especially from high-poverty schools.

The assistance is supposed to help improve standardized test scores, school attendance, student behavior and graduation rates.

The contracts are for three years.

Education officials said Friday’s action was needed so that 15 of the state’s 48 programs would continue through the end of the school year.

“This is really to ensure that we don’t disrupt services in the middle of the year,” said Erin Bendily, deputy superintendent for the state Department of Education.

About 3,000 students are served by the contracts approved on Friday.

The contract extensions approved on Friday includes Boys & Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge, $1.9 million over three years and 238 elementary and middle school students; Big Buddy program, $2 million and 285 elementary and middle school students; and LSU, $501,750 and 69 high school students.

The Boys & Girls Club and Big Buddy programs are listed as being on probation, which means they failed to show positive academic gains for the 2010-11 school year.

The LSU program is listed as exemplary.

The state Department of Education finalized a contract with a firm in 2010 to evaluate the program.

But lawmakers repeatedly asked whether the program is helping students, and whether contracts should be renewed next year.

“There needs to be a considerable amount of monitoring between now and June 30,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, a reference to when the contracts end.

Fannin said the assistance “seems to be a program that does not have standards it needs to have.”

Donahue said by mid-2013 lawmakers need to decide whether the money is being spent properly.