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As stimulus funds trickle down, debate heats up

As details emerge about how communities are spending federal stimulus funds, debates about the use of taxpayers' money are erupting around the country. Tell us what kind of reception projects in your community are getting.
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With $2.23 million in federal stimulus funding pouring into the coffers of the Montclair School District in New Jersey, one tiny chunk — $65,000 — stuck in the craws of local bloggers and citizens. That money was allocated by the local school board to hire Duane “D” West, a professional football player turned motivational celebrity speaker, to work with a group of at-risk kids — largely the Montclair High School football team.

“Holy crap,” an outraged reader named Annette wrote in response to the first report about the program on the local blog She did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to arrive at this conclusion: “That’s $104.17 a minute. Sick!”

“Racism!!!” a reader who gave no name responded. “This is the typical response when a black man in America is successful and making a global difference in the community, particularly with children.”

The Montclair School District’s hiring of a motivational speaker also serves as a case study in another respect: As details emerge about the projects, the debate becomes more nuanced.

Montclair is a largely affluent community, with thousands of white-collar workers who commute to work in New York City, but it also has pockets of entrenched urban poverty. The school district has long struggled to close the gap between disadvantaged students from poor neighborhoods and their privileged classmates.

The stimulus money in question comes through Title I, which targets students who are at risk of failing to miss state academic requirements. The argument is not so much about whether to help the students get their grades up, but how best to do it.

Some critics argued that the money would be better spent on tutoring. But school district spokeswoman Laura Federico said the program is an extension of the academic support that is already in place.

“The kinds of things that this kind of program D. West offers … include parent outreach, motivation, character education, leadership — all those things that play a role in achievement,” said Federico. “We try to support the whole child, because the statistics show that students perform due to a whole range of factors.”

Renaissance consultant
West is a 42-year-old African American who rose from a drug and crime infested neighborhood in nearby Irvington to play part of a season for the AFL Florida Bobcats and get a degree in psychology at Rutgers University.

Over the past 20 years, he has parlayed his education and street sense into a career as a national television pundit, fitness guru and motivational speaker. His programs meld tough-love, discipline and leadership strategies with anti-gang, anti-drug, anti-violence messages.

The school district hired West and his consulting company, Pro Athletes Inc., to mentor 22 student athletes over the next six months at Montclair High School. They also will put on presentations for students at two local middle schools.

Federico said some of the outrage seems to be based on a misunderstanding. Some readers clearly thought the money was for a one-time appearance by West, she said.

And she thinks the debate will subside as people learn more about the scope of the program. A posting on the school district Web site notes that its overall success will be assessed by improvement of grades, attendance, surveys and other means.

The local Montclair Times newspaper also recently published an article that addressed some of the criticism leveled at the program, including the argument that the money would be better spent on tutoring. The money could not be spent on existing tutoring programs, it noted, since federal guidelines require that the funding go to new projects.

But the article didn’t silence the naysayers.

One reader left a comment on the article saying it amounted to “an advertisement” for D. West and failed to ask hard questions about this “ridiculous expenditure.”

Are local stimulus projects in your community or state sparking similar debate? If so, please click on the link above and tell us about the project and whether you consider it a good use of taxpayer money.

You can also submit photos of the project if that helps you tell your story.