A School Windfall That Set Off a Whirlwind of Controversy

Sunday, May 17, 2009 | A windfall of stimulus dollars might seem like a godsend for San Diego Unified schools right now. But the way that the school district is soliciting plans for the new funds has set off a whirlwind of controversy, even as schools rush to bid for up to $17 million a year.

Parents charged with overseeing federal money complain that they were not included in the plans that were hastily drafted by schools last week. Teachers and their union say the superintendent has sidestepped them. The school district refused to share the draft plans with the media on Friday. And some of the brief plans hashed out by schools, obtained from other sources by voiceofsandiego.org, raise a barrage of new questions, from whether schools can mandate that teachers stay in one area to curb turnover to how lengthening the school year would work.

“This is not transparency,” said Francine Maxwell, whose children attend Lincoln and Morse high schools. “And I thought that was where we were headed — that anything dealing with the stimulus was going to be transparent. But the schools rationalized it as, ‘It had to be quick.’”

The rush for the money began two weeks ago when Superintendent Terry Grier met with each of the four “clusters” of schools that lead into Crawford, Hoover, Lincoln, and San Diego high schools, where test scores have sagged compared to other local schools. Principals and teachers from the clusters were asked to jointly devise a skeletal plan for creatively and smartly spending as much as $17 million annually in stimulus money over two years. Only one or two clusters would win the funds, Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris said. And they had to craft the plan in a single week, turning in their plans by last Tuesday.

Morris said that schools had to hurry so that the plans could be brought to the school board before unrolling any major changes, such as changing the school calendar, which could take time to put together before next school year. The budget deadline is June 30. No final decisions have been made, the school board has yet to weigh in, and it is unclear when the final plans will be chosen.

But the rapid push for ideas has meant that while some schools were able to survey parents and get their input, many were limited to including principals and some teachers in the process so far.

“The superintendent says, ‘Go out and get this back in a couple days,’ and then he says, ‘Have you shared it with your community?’” said Mel Collins, executive principal of the Lincoln High school complex. “And I have to say, ‘Hell no, I haven’t shared it, I haven’t had time!’ But he understands that.”

Karen Wroblewski, principal of the School of International Studies at San Diego High, described a series of meetings that stretched as long as four hours where principals and teachers brainstormed plans. Her next step is to bring the ideas to parents and the community to work out the details.

“What we have is not detailed enough,” Wroblewski said. “We have to make sure everyone buys in it. And what does it actually look like? I think we need to get more publicity about it and more ideas.”

Others are worried by the rush and unappeased by the idea that parents or the public will be involved later. Local parents on a committee that oversees federal money for disadvantaged students voted Wednesday night to file a complaint with the state that their group, which makes recommendations on how to divvy up the funds, was not properly involved in the stimulus plans. Grier later said that the group will be consulted before decisions are made.

David Page, who oversees the committee, argued that the school district had run afoul of federal rules by not vetting its plans with the group. “If we’ve been left out of the loop, then I’m just wasting my time coming here,” Page said at the meeting.

The teachers union plans to file a charge that San Diego Unified violated labor law when patching together the plans, alleging that it dodged the union on issues that must be bargained, such as how many days teachers work. It contends that such changes can only be brought to the union, not directly to teachers, just as individual schools cannot ask teachers to change their salaries without going to the bargaining table. Union President Camille Zombro called it “unnecessary and disheartening.”

“They’re saying, ‘We have this opportunity to grab a bunch of money from the feds, so let’s all slap together a plan with this template, and let’s see who can get the money,’” Zombro said. She added, “I would think that taxpayers would be somewhat concerned about federal stimulus money being spent in such a way.”

Sparring over the stimulus echoes the ongoing debate about Superintendent Grier and his leadership. While Grier has earned praise for his fast pace and passion for change, that same speediness has sparked criticism for failing to get input from parents and teachers on his plans. And with millions in stimulus money at stake, those arguments are even more pressing, especially as tension builds between the stimulus goals of doing new things and saving jobs that already exist.

“There needs to be community input and participation. That doesn’t happen extremely quickly,” said school board member John Lee Evans. He added, “It is a quandary in terms of, ‘Here is some quick stimulus money to hold things together, and we want you to be innovative, and we want your ideas to be well thought out and based on research.’ There are a lot of contradictions there.”

The money, which bolsters a federal fund meant specifically to help disadvantaged children, is one of several buckets of stimulus dollars headed to San Diego Unified this year. Chief Financial Officer James Masias said it is estimated to total $31.8 million of the more than $109 million in stimulus dollars the school district has estimated it will get over the next two years, or roughly $16 million a year. (Earlier estimates put the figure at $34 million total or $17 million a year.) It must be spent following the same rules as schools would ordinarily follow for the funds.

And while these dollars are automatically flowing to schools based on their poverty levels and are meant to save and create jobs, using them to reform schools in innovative ways could give San Diego Unified an edge when vying for more federal grants next fall.

One of the most ambitious and potentially explosive plans comes from the cluster of schools in southeastern San Diego that lead into Lincoln High School. The draft proposal obtained by voiceofsandiego.org includes a unique contract for teachers that would require staffers to commit to work in the Lincoln cluster for three or more years and give them extra money to work in the area, a phenomenon sometimes dubbed “battle pay.” The idea is favored by federal education czar Arne Duncan and by Obama as a way to encourage teachers to go to tough schools. But the union, which would likely need to approve such a plan, argues that it avoids the workplace issues in poor areas and instead simply throws money at the problem.

Both the Lincoln and Crawford plans include extending the school year for four more weeks, which costs money because schools must pay teachers more for the extra time. Some reformers like the idea because it gives children more time in the classroom, which has been shown to benefit disadvantaged students who tend to backslide during breaks. But changing schedules is logistically tricky and sometimes unpopular with parents. The union also says that it must be bargained with them first.

Technology is also touted in plans from Lincoln, Crawford and San Diego High, several of which push for digital whiteboards and laptops for every student. Other ideas include adding more counselors, nurses and social workers to schools around Crawford, emphasizing writing at all the schools that lead into San Diego High, and creating a district-run middle school that leads into Lincoln, where many surrounding middle schools are charter schools that are independently run with public funding. Principals in the Hoover cluster declined to share their plan this week, but Tim Allen, who oversees a City Heights partnership with three of its schools, said that many schools had misgivings about the timeline and issues that might need to be bargained with teachers.

“Every principal there was excited about the possibility of doing something different,” Allen said. “But they were concerned about getting the buy-in on the ideas.”

Grier and Morris said that there was no pressure on schools to use specific ideas, other than to emphasize that President Obama and federal education czar Arne Duncan favored some approaches, including a longer school year. Several principals echoed their words, saying that they were not told to use one method or another.

“Terry was very explicit about making sure that we understood that this was not something that he was dictating for us to do — if we didn’t want to do it, don’t do it,” said Bruce McGirr, principal of Grant School and president of the Administrators Association. “He learned his lesson from the past when it seemed we were given mandates involuntarily.”

But teachers at some schools got a different message. Patrick Fulke, a 5th grade teacher at Normal Heights Elementary, said he was concerned when told that the school district intended to lengthen the year at his and nearby schools in the Hoover cluster. Other teachers agreed but declined to be named.

“We were given very little time to discuss it amongst ourselves as teachers,” Fulke said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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