PLACENTIA — The state has withheld a $100,000 grant to the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District pending an investigation into claims by Latino activists that the money was unfairly earmarked for affluent, predominantly white schools.
However, Terry Emmett, the state coordinator for the Goals 2000 federal grant, emphasized the routine nature of the inquiry.
"There has been no determination that they have done anything wrong at this point," she said. "We just want to be sure the money is handled properly."
Supt. James O. Fleming defended the grant program and said the activists never asked for information that would have proved it was administered fairly.
"There are at-risk kids everywhere in the district," he said. "We're going to be working on a response to the state Department [of Education], and I think when they see our information, they're going to approve it."
Under federal guidelines, at least half the grant money should "go to schools that have a special need for assistance." It's up to local districts to determine what constitutes special need. Fleming said the district looked at income levels and attendance, among other indicators.
Leaders of three Latino advocacy groups, Los Amigos, MANA, and School Watch, complained to state authorities in an Aug. 18 letter that the grant money, which should have been released this week, was destined for schools in high-income, predominantly white Yorba Linda neighborhoods. No schools in lower-income Placentia were included in the 10-school Esperanza consortium, which made the grant application.
"This all smacks of race discrimination and bias," said Mark Lopez, director of the nonprofit School Watch, which "defends children's educational and civil rights."
He referred to a chart that shows the consortium schools had an average Latino population of 10%, while other schools in the district have a 34% Latino enrollment. Average household income in Yorba Linda is $75,505, while in Placentia it is $55,455, according to documents submitted by the Latinos.
"In light of so many things that have gone on in California recently--immigrant bashing, loss of affirmative action--why did they choose these 10 schools for the consortium?" asked Bernedette S. Medrano, a member of the national Latina organization MANA (Mexican American Women's National Assn.) "Why not all of them? What I read in the grant application did not make sense based on the location of the schools and the ethnic makeup of the population. It did not add up."
Pauline Ferris, who coordinates the Goals 2000 program for the district, said the district invited all of its 28 schools to participate in the grant application, and that only 10 expressed an interest. Those 10, which eventually formed the Esperanza consortium, were all from Yorba Linda. No schools in Placentia responded, she said.
"I don't know why these particular schools wanted to write the application and the others didn't," Ferris said. "Many may have been writing other grant proposals. There are grants now coming out that are worth $2 million."
Fleming said the Placentia schools generally qualify for a number of larger grants.
"We think we have lots of programs for underrepresented minorities," he said. "We think these people are wrong."
Ferris said the relatively small three-year Goals 2000 grant, now in its second year, is intended for innovative programs that, once proven successful, can be used districtwide.
Last year, a new accelerated method to teach reading proved so successful in the consortium schools that all elementary school teachers in the district were trained to use it, she said.
From Sacramento, Emmett said the department's investigation probably would take at least a month and involve a visit to the district. She said 168 Goals 2000 grants were awarded throughout the state, and that all others had been awarded without complaint.