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At the Del Mar Union School District, the school board’s new majority, elected in November on a platform of reforming the district’s fundraising arm, is finding the job much harder than it ever imagined.

On Wednesday night, following its second five-hour meeting on the subject in two weeks, the school board delayed most decisions about the future of the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation until later this month.

At issue is how the nonprofit foundation, which brings in private money to support district art, music, technology, science and other enrichment teachers, should be allowed to fundraise and what the district should do to address parent concerns about inequity if one school is able to raise more money than another.

Last week, two board members had floated their own proposal, which would have severed most ties between the foundation and the district and required the nonprofit to follow strict operating guidelines, though it failed to gain much steam after foundation board members warned that the move would devastate their ability to raise funds.

Once ardent political foes, the foundation and the school board majority now say they have narrowed almost all of their differences. In a motion approved unanimously by the five-person board, the district promised to continue to provide the foundation with free office space and other support, though it has stopped short of endorsing the foundation as the district’s primary fundraising organ; that decision, both sides say, is now a matter of ironing out some minor disagreements.

“I think we’re trying to create a situation where the foundation will be able to thrive, and the school district will be able to thrive,” said board President Annette Easton, a previous critic of the foundation. “I think that’s our goal.”

However, both sides are now struggling with how to reconcile the district’s sometimes-conflicting priorities and the state law, which district lawyers say may have been skirted by the foundation’s previous fundraising practices.

In particular, the following issues remain:

  • On one hand, the school board says it wants to avoid being on the hook for the salaries of teachers hired by foundation dollars, should its fundraising prowess falter. But on the other, the district’s legal counsel has warned that making the provision of enrichment teachers contingent on parent donations may violate the state constitutional guarantee to fee-free education.
  • Though roughly a third of the district’s enrichment budget is based on foundation contributions, nearly all of its current enrichment teachers are protected by state tenure laws, meaning that the district has little choice but to keep them on, regardless of the money provided by the foundation.
  • The school board must decide whether to allow individual schools to fund extra enrichment positions, beyond the allocation provided by the district, if they can raise the additional private money to do so, and whether to cap how many extra teachers each school can hire. Complicating the decision are parent worries about equity.
  • At the end, the decisions the board makes could significantly reduce both the carrots and the sticks the foundation has used to prod parents into donating, putting the financial viability of both the foundation and the enrichment program at risk.

The school board hopes that the district’s superintendent and lawyers will craft a legally tenable compromise, to be presented at a special board meeting scheduled for March 24.

VLADIMIR KOGAN

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