Vanity Publishing and Government Grants: Spending Money for the Dream of Getting Money

by on November 24th, 2014
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As a financially struggling twenty-year-old who didn’t tend to spend a lot of time fully thinking things out, it seemed to make sense. Send in a poem. Pay forty dollars. The poem would be guaranteed publication. I would get a certificate stating that I was now a member of an exclusive poetry club. I would have the chance to win one thousand dollars in a contest and an all expense paid trip to some tropical location, for a party held in my honor.

Simple enough, right? I mean, didn’t I have a handful of people (mostly relatives) telling me I was the most talented poet they knew? Wasn’t this a way to become a published poet? Didn’t I stand a good chance of winning the contest and getting the prize money which seemed, at the time, like a whole lot of money?

I was a financially struggling twenty-year-old who, with all the rationale I could muster, figured my already delinquent electric bill could wait until next payday. You have to spend money to make money, I reasoned. And you have to dream big.

The book, when it arrived, was hard-bound and thick as a city phonebook. The poems were bunched several to a page in small print. Mine was on the lower left-hand side of page 681. I read it, along with the contest winning poem, which got a page of its own near the front of the book. It was a good poem… Better, I ruefully admitted, than mine was. I read some of the other poems. Most of them weren’t better than mine. Some weren’t even as good.

And the certificate was nice. It came in the mail along with a colored brochure that doubled as a party invitation. For fifteen hundred dollars, I could still go to this tropical location and schmooze with other marginally talented, though unskilled and unknown, poets. I could meet the contest winner. I had fifteen days to reply though. Otherwise the price would go up.

I didn’t have fifteen hundred dollars. I had no clue as to how to come up with fifteen hundred dollars in fifteen days. But there was this other club. This other contest. I could try again. Get published again. For forty dollars.

A couple of years ago, the state of Colorado announced a new grant program that would be used to replace aging school facilities. The idea was that the state would send a team to evaluate every school facility in the district. These evaluations would then be used to determine which districts had the most pressing needs. The districts would hire an architectural firm to help them develop a plan for a new facility that would satisfy those needs. After an initial grant cycle to address the most immediate infrastructure issues, all these plans would go before a board each year who would evaluate them and pick a few that they would be willing to partially fund through state land trust money.

It was the sort of process that demanded staff buy-in. Public input. What did we want to see in a new school facility? we were asked. Dream big! we were told. You can get a whole new school, we were told, with very little investment from the taxpayers.

My district, financially struggling to the point of closing down school facilities, struggled with that dreaming big part. Particularly the people of my district. What did we want? Doors on all the stalls in the girls’ lavatory. Maybe some new lockers with doors that actually closed. The removal of asbestos tiles. The ability to meet fire codes and to plug a lot of things in at once without blowing breakers.

Dream bigger, we were told. We were also told to hire staff specifically to address the pursuit of this grant. We were told to select a general contractor from a list of the state’s preferred general contractors. To stay in careful contact with state employees to make sure they were aware and in support of the project. To work on public relations along with the architectural firm so that the taxpayers of the district would see the good reasons to vote yes on a bond that would provide the rest of the funding for the new facility. To have our administrators and our paid architects go to the state facility board meeting to argue our case.

The national stimulus came about during the school district’s second attempt at the state grant funds for school facilities (the first attempt at an all new facility after trying and failing to get funds for immediate infrastructure stuff). Nonprofit organizations were given the opportunity to compete for stimulus grant funds that they could then turn around and give, in the form of competitive grants, to other organizations under the promise of providing new jobs. I don’t recall hearing about any new jobs from the local nonprofit money grab, though there was a refrigerator bought from the money and mandatory business training that the recipient of the refrigerator said was worthless. The immediate area was deemed too rural for any of the highway repair projects that the state chose to fund through its chunk of stimulus money. The rural clinic did get some though, in order to computerize their patient information.

During the school district’s third attempt at the state grant funds for school facilities, the Obama Administration announced that – in response to the accurate notion that No Child Left Behind was, in fact, leaving a lot of children behind – there would be a new, competitive funding program to address public education reform.

In order for the states to compete for the funding available, each would need to invest in specialists who could formulate a plan as to how the state would reform their educational system. These plans would need to include a number of things required by the federal government. Lobbyists would be needed to propel each project to the top of the “Race to the Top” heap. Officials would need to go to the nation’s capitol to argue our case. School districts would have to buy into the plan and agree to implement the new regulations. Some would cost money. All would require reporting to the state. If, however, the districts didn’t agree, their portion of the money that the state might win could be withheld.

The school district hired a different architectural firm for their fourth attempt at facility grant funding. It seems the firm they’d been working with wasn’t working well with the state. And amidst grumbling that they were spending too much money on architects while teaching jobs were being lost and programs were being cut, at least one district official declared that we had spent too much money to stop now.

Four attempts. And the local school district has ponied up their own money to meet fire codes. This year, they decided to spring for new lockers while simultaneously cutting the music program and various other non-essentials. They’ve had an architectural firm on the payroll for three years now.

Two attempts. The state legislature has passed school reform that is in line with the national requirements for the grant funding. They’ve passed the burden of implementing these requirements on to districts. Districts who have seen a decline in property taxes due to larger economical woes and a cut in state funding which is – in part – the result in a cut in national funding. The state is now pondering passing a tax to help fund public education.

And nearly twenty years later, I imagine there’s a person out there somewhere with a huge, hardbound volume of mostly bad poetry collecting dust on a shelf. Mine is on page 681. And maybe that person remembers how they spent their prize money. Maybe they have photos from a tropical party they attended with a whole lot of other poets whose names they don’t remember.

My face isn’t in those photos though. I don’t know if that trip would have dramatically changed my life or my poetic career. All I know is that, at the time, I couldn’t afford it.

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