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Superintendent Terry Grier has directed an attorney to investigate whether public dollars were misspent on a school readiness conference sponsored by school board member Shelia Jackson, according to an e-mail Grier sent after being questioned by the Union-Tribune.

Spending district money on the event could be deemed inappropriate because it was not sponsored by the school district or approved by its board. The event benefited from the use of school facilities, police and custodial services, among other things.

The move bewildered Jackson and co-organizer Zoneice Jones, who said they have not been contacted about any problems with the annual event, and would repay any questioned fees if asked.

The New ERAA 2008 conference is meant to get San Diego families excited about returning to school, Jackson said. It has used school facilities such as Lincoln High School, included speeches by Grier and previously by then-Superintendent Carl Cohn, and has enjoyed support from employees who voluntarily lead workshops for parents on homework help, kindergarten readiness and other topics.

Jackson, who is up for re-election, said there was no campaigning or campaign literature at the event, though a banner with her name was displayed along with that of City Councilman Tony Young, a co-sponsor, among a handful of such banners on display.

New ERAA also benefited from a school district discount on Office Depot supplies, used to fill free backpacks given away to families at the event. Jackson borrowed a district credit card to buy the supplies last year, with the permission of then-Chief Financial Officer Bill Kowba, and was accompanied by Art Hanby, director of business support services, when purchasing the supplies this year. The school district has been reimbursed for those costs.

Hanby and Kowba mistakenly thought the event was sponsored by the school district, according to Grier’s e-mail, which was provided to voiceofsandiego.org by Jackson.

Jackson said she did not represent the conference as a district event. School police and custodial services totaling $3,200 were also provided by the district, according to an e-mail sent by Grier to the board informing them of questions raised by Union-Tribune reporter Maureen Magee. (The Union-Tribune has not published an article about the issue.) The superintendent said he will seek reimbursement for those costs.

Organizers also didn’t fill out a form to use the building or pay an application fee of $161.50 to $721.60 for the site, Grier wrote. Jackson got permission from Lincoln High School Principal Mel Collins to use the school site.

San Diego Unified has not formally requested repayment from New ERAA, but Jackson and Zoneice Jones, whose organization Pazzaz handles finances for the event, said they would repay any costs incurred by the school district. Jones said they met with Grier in April to tell him about the event and seek his support.

“We don’t have any problem paying the charges at all,” Jones said. “But it would have been good to know that those expenses would be incurred.”

Jackson questioned whether Grier was targeting her conference because she has criticized his initiatives, and opposes a proposed policy that would make the superintendent “the sole point of direction” from the board to the school district. The question of where the board’s powers end and the superintendent’s begin has been an ongoing issue in San Diego Unified.

“Is this just a scare tactic? An opportunity to get me to quiet down?” Jackson asked.

Grier was not available for comment this morning. School board president Katherine Nakamura declined to comment, but said the issue would be discussed by the board today.

EMILY ALPERT

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