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Federal government: Magnet school grants at risk over Connecticut's transgender athlete policy

The U.S. Department of Education has told Groton its federal magnet school grant funding may be in jeopardy because the district would abide by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s policy for transgender athletes, which the federal government argues violates Title IX, the superintendent said.

While still awaiting a final decision from the federal government, Groton could lose about $704,000 in federal Magnet School Assistance Program funding this year for its middle school, Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said.

Groton receives the funding as part of a larger five-year MSAP grant awarded to LEARN, a regional education service center based in Old Lyme. That means funding for LEARN, the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, Teachers’ Memorial Global Studies Magnet Middle School and Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School in Norwich, also is at risk, LEARN Executive Director Kate Ericson said. Overall, a total of more than $3 million could be lost this year, and about $2.5 million next year, according to LEARN.

New Haven Public Schools and the Capitol Region Educational Council also are at risk of losing federal magnet school funding.

Graner said the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights contacted him in early August to ask if the high school had transgender athletes or competed against them. He said he told them no but, when asked hypothetically, said the district would follow state law and the CIAC’s policy, which recognizes that transgender athletes compete under the gender with which they identify.

Graner said the Office for Civil Rights then notified him in early September that if the school district doesn’t agree with the federal interpretation — that allowing transgender females to compete under the gender with which they identify violates Title IX — then the department indicated it would not be able to certify that the school district adheres to the civil rights nondiscrimination statement that is required as part of the grant.

Title IX is a federal law meant to ensure equal educational opportunities for females.

The department still is evaluating whether Groton meets the criteria, and the town is anticipating a decision by the end of the month.

Graner said he was told the district could avoid losing the federal grant if it withdrew Fitch High School athletes from all interscholastic sports — an offer he said he, of course, rejected.

He said the department is putting Connecticut school districts and athletes between opposing state and federal authorities.

“If we agreed with the federal legislation, we would be in direct violation of Connecticut state law and so from my perspective, they’re putting the high school athletes between a rock and a hard place,” Graner said.

Graner asked for the Department of Education to hold off until the matter was adjudicated in court. In February, the Alliance Defending Freedom, representing several female athletes, filed suit against Connecticut’s transgender policy, the Connecticut Mirror reported.

U.S. Department of Education press secretary Angela Morabito said in a statement Thursday that “Congress requires the Department to withhold funds from schools that aren’t in compliance with the law. Connecticut applicants declined — on multiple occasions — to assure the Office for Civil Rights that they are in compliance with Title IX.”

Graner said the Office for Civil Rights had a meeting Thursday evening with the Southeastern Connecticut school districts and LEARN, New Haven and Capitol Region Educational Council in conjunction with Enfield, and made a proposal. The school officials plan to meet again Friday to craft a counter-proposal.

“We are hoping to resolve our dispute with OCR amicably and secure the release of the funding for the benefit of our magnet school programs and students,” said Michelle Laubin, senior partner at Berchem Moses PC, who is representing Groton and New Haven.

Connecticut’s federal delegation signed a joint letter Thursday urging the Office for Civil Rights “to withdraw its threat to withhold Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) from Connecticut public schools” and called it “unprecedented overreach” and “an arbitrary remedy that specifically targets Connecticut schools.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the federal government should follow its own practices and “not be judge and jury by imposing a very draconian financial penalty while the matter is still before the courts.”

“Arbitrarily coming in and cutting off funding for school districts is going to impact children who have absolutely no connection to this issue,” he said.

In a statement, the state Office of the Attorney General called federal magnet school funding “critical to advancing educational equity in Connecticut” and said it “is working closely with local school districts to ensure that Connecticut receives our full magnet school funding award.”

“But make no mistake: Neither federal law nor Connecticut law tolerates discrimination against transgender students,” the Office of the Attorney General added. “Transgender girls are girls, and the AGO will continue to protect every woman and girl in this state against discrimination.”

Loss of funding would be 'devastating' 

With its fiscal year beginning July 1, the Groton school district already budgeted for the funding, which covers items such as intradistrict magnet transportation and magnet coordinators. If denied the funding, Groton would need to immediately reassess its budget.

“The problem is they told us literally days before school started that the current budget is going to be eliminated to the tune of $704,000 in the middle of a pandemic,” Graner said. “The timing could not have been possibly worse.”

LEARN said the loss of funding would be devastating. Five schools were slated to receive money under the grant: about $704,000 for Groton Middle School; $389,511 for the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London; $309,597 for Teachers Memorial Global Studies Magnet Middle School in Norwich; $361,990 for Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School in Norwich; and $376,483 for Connecticut River Academy in East Hartford, as well as additional funding for LEARN to support the schools.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, the Magnet Schools Assistance Program is designed to “assist in the desegregation of public schools by supporting the elimination, reduction, and prevention of minority group isolation in elementary and secondary schools with substantial numbers of minority group students.” The website specifies that “projects also must support the development and implementation of magnet schools that assist in the achievement of systemic reforms and provide all students with the opportunity to meet challenging academic content and student academic achievement standard.”

Ericson said at risk is funding to expand educational opportunities for diverse students. She said LEARN has a history of receiving the MSAP funding for different projects for more than two decades.

“We’re disappointed with the federal government’s process. We’re just confounded,” said Ericson, adding that LEARN has never seen a process like this before and never seen one that had such a huge potential impact.

The Office for Civil Rights needs to certify by Sept. 30 that the school districts support the civil rights of students to receive the money by Oct. 1, the start of the federal government's fiscal year, Graner said.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights told the district that it would have to withdraw from the CIAC or face losing $3 million for New Haven Public Schools. He said that New Haven has not yet heard a final decision, but if the federal government withdraws the funding, New Haven will fight it.

“Their position, we believe, is extortion and forcing us to go against our values of supporting transgender athletes, but it also is untenable because it would require us to remove our membership from the CIAC and therefore no New Haven kids would have any opportunity to participate in competitive sports, because the CIAC is the only entity in this state for them to participate in — not to mention that it’s against state law,” Elicker said. “State law requires districts not to discriminate based on gender identity, which we believe in and support.”

Capitol Region Educational Council, or CREC, said it also is at risk of losing funding.

"CREC stands strongly behind our transgender youth and will not buckle to political pressure being exerted through the grant," Timothy J. Sullivan Jr., superintendent of CREC Schools, said in a statement. "It is unconscionable that the federal government would threaten to take away funds that support Hartford area children during a pandemic, and we will fight to keep the money in our community. However, no amount of money will deter us from accepting all children for who they are and providing equitable access to programs and services."

k.drelich@theday.com

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