Durham leaders will not follow the advice of a citizen panel that recommended cutting funds for El Centro Hispano by more than three quarters, in part because the center’s services are too “Latino specific.” But the organization is still fighting for its full request. Last year, El Centro–one of North Carolina’s leading Latino organizations–received $33,920 from the city. This year, the 12-year-old organization requested $44,900 to support a youth program, summer camp, a community health fair and ongoing work with Durham Police, housing and other agencies that deal with local Spanish-speaking residents.

Instead, a review panel recommended awarding only $5,000–a suggestion that city budget officials announced June 6 will not be followed. Among the reasons cited for El Centro’s “low” rating of 71 out of 100 points (the cutoff score was 70) were that center programs “should be for any child or family regardless of race, not just Latino” and that “the bulk of [grant] money is for salaries and a one-time festival.” (Of the $44,900 requested by El Centro, $12,380 would go to salaries and $3,000 to the Health Fiesta, according to its grant application).

El Centro’s leaders were bewildered by the panel’s recommendation because the proposal they submitted was essentially the same as last year, when the organization received a rating of 98 and was given three quarters of the money it requested.

“We just don’t understand how this can happen,” says Angelina Schiavone, El Centro’s outgoing director. “The city has always been very positive and supportive about our work. Those views are not coming through in this decision.”

City Council member Eugene Brown had much the same reaction. “I don’t know how this happened,” he said in a phone conversation before Monday’s council meeting, where it was announced that El Centro will receive $30,000 in grants this cycle. “It’s going to change.”

While the city grant is a small part of El Centro’s nearly $799,000 annual budget, Schiavone says its leaders are concerned about the reasons cited for the cut. The Latino population that El Centro serves represents people of many races and countries of origin, she notes, and the organization supports immigrants from African countries, as well. (The local Tanzanian immigrant association holds its meetings at El Centro’s downtown Durham offices).

“They said they want us to be more diverse and inclusive,” Schiavone says. “But people have a different knowledge of what the Latino community is. Within the community we serve there is diversity. And the reason we focus on Latinos is that we feel this is a community that is underserved and marginalized.”

Others stress that El Centro’s youth program is essential at a time when concerns about school dropout rates and gangs are on the rise in Durham. At the group’s first meeting of the summer last week, Latino teenagers from several local high schools talked about the racism they’d experienced at the hands of fellow students and the support groups El Centro helped them form to bridge those gaps.

Overall, the organization is offering people the kind of help “that, in fact, the city of Durham itself would be hard pressed to give them,” writes Ariel Dorfman, a distinguished professor of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke—one of a number of El Centro supporters who sent letters to the City Council asking for full funding for the group.

On Monday night, members of El Centro’s youth group, staff, volunteers and supporters marched to City Hall chanting, “El Centro Hispano unido jámas será vencido (“El Centro Hispano united will never be defeated”). Youth group members hoisted a poster-size letter to the council with comments such as, “Don’t marginalize me. Every time you do that it pushes me towards violence.”

During the meeting, the group learned that city budget officials had added $25,000 to El Centro’s proposal for a total of $30,000. That recommendation now goes to City Council, which is slated vote on a budget June 20.

Why did the review panel recommend cuts?

A “consensus sheet” on El Centro’s grant application to the city was signed by two panelists: Mike Shifflett, past president of the Interneighborhood Council and Harold Chestnut, a leader in the Partners Against Crime organization. The sheet lists reasons for both the low and high ratings given to the proposal–comments that contradict each other. For example, under “low rating justification,” questions about “inclusiveness” are raised. But the high rating justification notes that services El Centro offers the Latino community are “not duplicated” by the city or other nonprofits.

Chestnut–whose name appears beside comments on the low ratings–says he doesn’t remember the specifics of El Centro’s proposal or his written notes, since the panel made its evaluations back in March and looked at so many applications.

Shifflett doesn’t remember any debate on the panel about El Centro’s target population, though he says he feels it’s “very appropriate” for the group to focus on Latinos. He says he was most interested in whether all of the nonprofits he reviewed could show concrete results.

This is the third year that Durham has used citizen panels to review grant requests from nonprofits doing work in the arts, public safety, youth and community development. El Centro was not the only nonprofit to see its funding request slashed. Panelists also recommended substantial cuts in requests from the African American Dance Ensemble, Schoolhouse of Wonder and the SEEDS community gardening program–among others. The $2.18 million available to fund nonprofits in 2006 is about the same as this year, according to city budget officials, while the number of groups applying for grants has risen from 54 to 64. The review process is aimed at helping the city make better and more accountable decisions about nonprofit funding. But some say it still has flaws.

Barbara Lau, Community Programs Director for the Center for Documentary Studies–whose request for funds for a youth arts program was rejected by the panel this year–points out that nonprofits aren’t able to choose the category in which they will be considered. Her organization’s request, for example, was evaluated under community development, not arts and culture. City budget officials insist that the individual categories don’t affect how proposals are evaluated since the scoring system is uniform.

It’s also not clear, Lau says, how the rating system for each proposal is related to the city’s stated goals or its overall budget totals–a point on which volunteer panelist Shifflett, agrees. “I would love to be able to see a policy that gives direction to the panel about whether they are going to do capacity building or increase funding year to year for these organizations,” he says.

Some say El Centro’s experience this year raises larger questions about the city’s nonprofit grant review process. (“Are we asking other organizations if they serve Latinos?” asked one of the group’s supporters).

For Lau, those bigger questions include, “Who should be involved in deciding how the city determines who funds nonprofits? What should the panels look like, and how can the process become more transparent and less political?”

More important than funding, El Centro’s staff members say, is the need to make sure city leaders understand their organization’s mission.

“They say we are not diverse enough, but I’m Palestinian and I’m working at El Centro because this is my community,” says Nadeen Bir, one of two part-time leaders of the youth group, Jovenes Líderes en Acción.

“People don’t realize that North Carolina is where the Latino population is growing the fastest,” adds her co-leader, Sergio Graterol. “There aren’t a lot of other places Latino youth can go.”