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Originally published Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Gates Foundation withholding grant from local schools

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is withholding the last installment of its five-year, $25.9 million grant to Seattle Public Schools until the district provides better plans...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is withholding the last installment of its five-year, $25.9 million grant to Seattle Public Schools until the district provides better plans for how the high-school share will be spent.

The district's high schools have yet to spend roughly $2 million of previous allocations from the Gates grant. The foundation wants more information about how the schools intend to spend those dollars, plus their share of the $2.9 million that's being held back, said Marie Groark, foundation spokeswoman.

The grant requires that all schools write and carry out improvement plans. Several high schools, however, are behind in that work.

"The high school work has been slower," said Robin Pasquarella, president of the Alliance for Education, the nonprofit organization that oversees the grant. "It's been a very difficult place to change for lots of reasons."

Three high schools lag the most in grant spending, said John Thorp, the district's coordinator for the grant. Ballard, Franklin and Roosevelt each have about $100,000 to $200,000 they have yet to use.

One reason, he said, has been leadership changes at the schools.

The foundation understands that a change in principals can cause delay, Groark said. She added that progress has been made since the foundation first raised its concerns in November. And she said the foundation is happy with much of what Seattle schools have done with the grant, especially with technology, and within elementary and middle schools.

At the same time, however, she said the foundation didn't want to send more money "when they have underspent their previous allocations."

Foundation and district staff say they expect the Seattle schools will eventually get this year's money.

"It's about us all coming to the same understanding of where we are together in this partnership, and where we're trying to go," said Kyle Miller, who oversees the foundation's grants in Washington state.

That would be good news for the Seattle School District, because money is so tight that the School Board is considering the difficult step of closing schools in the next few years.

Seattle was the first district to receive a grant when the Gates Foundation launched its $350 million education initiative in 2000.

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Since then, the foundation's education-giving has grown to more than $2 billion, including college scholarships, and has become nearly exclusively focussed on high schools. Its goal is to increase the number of students who graduate from high school, and those who are ready to go to college. As part of that, it has become a strong advocate of reducing the size of high schools to no more than 400 students, or creating schools-within-schools of about the same size.

The Seattle School District also wants to move in that direction, and three schools have a federal grant to help them create "small learning communities" within their schools. But those plans have raised concerns among some staff and parents, in part because the tradeoffs can limit the number of electives and advanced-placement classes students can take.

But Seattle's grant from the Gates Foundation — similar to those given to nine other districts in Washington state — is aimed at all schools, not just high schools. (Cleveland High also has a separate grant from the foundation that includes $590,000 to help the school break into four smaller units, and allows its students to qualify for a share of $100 million in college scholarships.)

The foundation has withheld money in about 10 other cases, Groark said. She declined to name those grantees or whether they are in Washington state.

The next meeting with Seattle school officials is scheduled for Jan. 25.

"My feeling is that we're very close to having the schools back on track with their spending," Thorp said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359

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