If your school is short on cash, why is it paying thousands for speakers?

Cahokia School Superintendent Art Ryan

Art Ryan, superintendent of Cahokia School District 187, breaks down spending requirements of the Title I federal funds. Depending on the amount of Title I funding a school district receives, Ryan said, the district may have to pay up to 20 percen
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Art Ryan, superintendent of Cahokia School District 187, breaks down spending requirements of the Title I federal funds. Depending on the amount of Title I funding a school district receives, Ryan said, the district may have to pay up to 20 percen

While the sums might seem staggering, district administrators have a simple response to anyone asking why thousands of dollars are spent on bringing speakers to their schools and teachers: we have to.

A survey of the metro-east’s public school districts showed many spending a thousand here or five thousand there over the last three years, with multi-day speakers bringing in yet thousands more, plus travel expenses. Many of those speakers were paid in part by Title 1 money, which are federal grants intended to help schools address the education needs presented by lower-income students.

Cahokia District 187, for instance, is “required” to spend about 20 percent of its Title 1 money on professional development, which can include paid speakers. For this and many school years, the Title 1 disbursement is more than $3 million, which means the district needs to spend $150,000 on professional development. That can and does include speakers.

Is it tough to spend that much money on speakers year after year?

“Yes, to be honest,” says Superintendent Art Ryan, who said the district sometimes falls short of the spending requirement.

Since 2013, Cahokia’s speaker spending has included $60 for a fitness instructor at a Family Fitness Night to $15,000 for a three-week math coaching and training segment.

It’s not just the federal Title 1 rules; it’s the state-mandated training as well.

“We have a requirement from the state of providing professional development,” says Cindy Presnell, assistant superintendent of Mascoutah District 19.

She says districts build training times into the school calendar.

“Sometimes ... we basically use each other as a (training) resource and other times we have to bring someone in,” Presnell said.

Mascoutah spent more than $12,000 in special education money to bring in a special speaker, she said; a $5,000 motivational speaker was paid out of a trust fund given to the district.

“Sometimes staff go to the regional office and participate in workshops or training ... especially when it’s free,” she said.

The St. Clair County Regional Office of Education frequently holds training that teachers can count as professional development. Recently it had a suicide-prevention workshop and an early childhood workshop.

The Regional Office of Education has a cooperative for professional development, said Susan Sarfaty, the ROE’s superintendent.

She said “we don’t have anything to do with Title 1,” but the regional office does use grants when possible to pay for professional development.

The cooperative allows “the districts to pool together some of their funds, and we host things that will catch a wider audience,” she said. “It makes it more cost-effective.”

Teachers are required to continue their education to maintain certification and may do so by pursuing further professional degrees such as master’s degrees. They can also also participate in professional development seminars at their schools, regional offices of education, or teacher institute days.

Some don’t pay for speakers

Belleville District 118, which has 235 full-time equivalent teachers in its 10 elementary and middle schools, typically does not bring in outside speakers.

“On institute days we have a lot of presenters, but either we use our own folks or use other resources so we don’t have to pay for it,” says Superintendent Matt Klosterman.

He says the district’s biggest Title 1 expense is to pay for substitute teachers so that regular teachers can attend grade-level training together.

For example, on Sept. 2, the junior high language arts teachers were together to go over the new curriculum, he said. Teachers facilitate their own meetings, he said, with Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Tracy Gray usually attending.

“We have professional development with a lot of learning going on, but for those meetings we generally don’t pay someone to come in and do that,” Klosterman said.

Belleville District 201, the high school district in the same area as District 118, spent more than $14,000 over the last three years to bring in speakers for its students and teachers.

“I think there is a clear justification, in my mind, in why people will try to create a link between their Title 1 goals and their professional development,” says Brian Mentzer, assistant superintendent of Belleville District 201.

“In my opinion, it’s the smoothest revenue stream that you have,” Mentzer said. “You’re mandated to use a portion of it. If you’re going to do professional development in reading or math, as in our case, it’s by far the best way to do it.”

The much-smaller Marissa District 40 spent almost $10,000 during the same time frame. Superintendent Kevin Cogdill said the district tries to use $3,000 to $4,000 a year to bring in “quality individuals to talk to our staff,” which he says is a cost-savings measure for his district.

“It does save us money. We can’t find enough substitute teachers to send four or five teachers to a conference, which would be more expensive anyway. It really helps us to get lots of in-service (teacher training) at a better cost,” he said.

Cogdill says these speakers help educators gain insight about their students.

“Our high school principal this year stands by the door and says good morning, how are you. A lot of our students leave home without an adult having said ‘have a great day,” Cogdill said. The elementary principal has started the practice too, to “let them know someone does care (about them) other than their family.”

What is Title 1 money?

“Title 1” is a federal program that provides money to local school districts to help disadvantaged students perform better in school. It is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Schools receiving Title 1 money fall into two categories: those with less than 40 percent of their students categorized as low-income, and those with more.

In Marissa’s case, about 65 percent of its students qualify for low-income services.

Marissa had four paid speaking presentations in the last three years; three of those — totaling more than $9,900 — were paid for by Title 1 money. The fourth was part of an anti-bullying campaign in September 2015 paid for by a local grant.

Cogdill said anti-bullying training is a crucial part of education.

“If a child is concerned with whether or not (the child) will be picked on or bullied at lunch or in the hallways, his or her focus is on daily life and not educational life,” he said.

Depending on the percentage of low-income students, districts may have to spend Title 1 money in “targeted” or “schoolwide” ways.

Schools with less than 40 percent of its students qualifying for low-income have to target their Title 1 spending on those students. Schools with 40 percent or more have “enough saturation” that any spending may be district-wide, Mentzer says.

For District 201, the funding source gets a little tricky.

“Ours (percentage of low income students) fluctuates from year to year, that’s our issue; last year was 39.6. Some years will be 39.6, some years 41.1, so when you go from targeted assistance to school wide, you have to apply for the (Title 1) process to change, and that takes about a year,” Mentzer said. By then, the district may better fit the other qualifications.

Where did the money come from?

Some school districts in the metro-east spent nothing on speakers in the last three years; others used thousands, as directed under federal law, on speakers as part of professional development for teachers. Districts also paid speakers by using their parent-teacher organizations, through grants, or sometimes from district funds, for special assemblies.

School districts

Title 1 paid


Belle Valley 119



Belleville 118



Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative



Belleville District 201



Brooklyn District 188



Cahokia District 187



Central 104



Collinsville District 10



Columbia District



Dupo 196



East St. Louis 189



Edwardsville 7



Freeburg Grade 70



Freeburg High 77



Granite City District 9



Grant 110



Harmony 175



Highland District 5



High Mount 116



Marissa 40



Mascoutah 19



Millstadt 160



New Athens 60



O’Fallon Grade 90



O’Fallon High 203






St. Libory






Signal Hill















Wolf Branch






Venice District 3



* Cahokia speakers paid for by special education

** Marissa 40 paid by a grant

*** O’Fallon Grade 90 and Collinsville paid under Title II

^ Central 104 and Harmony 175 have not responded as to which were Title 1 and which were not

^^ Collinsville District 10 spent an additional $16,155.80 on speaker and training for breakout sessions and workshops, that money was not Title 1 or Title 2 and its source was not specified.

^^^ Granite City District 9 used IDEA grants