Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009 | Amid talk of school budget cuts, San Diego Unified leaders are weighing whether to prod state lawmakers to cut the strings attached to dozens of funds, freeing the money to be used for any purpose. It is a controversial idea long pushed by reformers that would give the school board and superintendent more power to move dollars as they see fit. Their buzzword is “flexibility.”

“We know there is going to be less money overall,” said H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the California Department of Finance. “So let us break down the silos to let you have as much flexibility as possible.”

But flexibility faces an uphill battle in the legislature, and even San Diego Unified school board members who like the idea of freeing funds are not sure that all funds should be freed. The idea alarms those who believe that earmarking money is a good way to ensure that schools devote resources to specific programs, less glamorous needs such as overdue repairs or to more needy students such as English learners or students from poor families.

Taking the lead from other educational groups, San Diego Unified advocates are already pushing for flexibility in Sacramento but have not specified which funds to loosen — a question that proves sticky with parents and educators. The school board will consider that issue Tuesday afternoon.

“It seems odd that we can say that the intentions of the laws are null and void — that we will just use the money to pay the bills,” said David Page, a parent who leads a San Diego Unified committee on funding for disadvantaged students. He opposes flexibility on most funds. “You have to make sure that some moneys have some purpose, or else greedy people think differently.”

Funding pours into California schools from many different sources, but dozens of those funds come with strings attached, limiting how they can be spent. There are funds specifically to help students who have fallen behind in middle and high school, funds for library books, and funds to train school business czars. There are funds for art supplies, funds to help teach English to adults who become English tutors, funds for economically disadvantaged students, and funds to keep classes small.

The flexibility plan proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would mean that districts such as San Diego Unified could take money earmarked for specific purposes and use it elsewhere. It could take the $568,000 that California gave it to combat drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse and spend it on academic counselors. It could take the $3.5 million allocated to attract, retain and train good teachers and use it to preserve programs that take kids to Balboa Park museums instead.

Some of the special funds must be spent within the same year or be lost. Such earmarked funds have proliferated over the decades and nearly two dozen more were added just two years ago. Today there are 66 different funds that provide nearly $14 billion to California schools — roughly a third of their overall funding — with specific rules on how they can spend them.

School districts have eyed the restricted money as other dollars drop, and numerous reformers believe that untangling the web of regulations would help school districts better match their spending to what students need. Legislative analysts have repeatedly advised California legislators to simplify the system and condense the funds into fewer grants with fewer rules.

“The magnitude of these cuts can’t be absorbed unless we have ultimate flexibility,” said Amy Savacool, San Diego Unified director of government relations. “It allows us to target the funding to the programs that are important to San Diego Unified. It gives us local control.”

Pulling money from funds that were once forbidden is a tempting prospect as San Diego Unified faces a budget shortfall. No firm numbers are available until the legislature makes its decisions, but California is widely expected to slash school budgets this year and next, costing the San Diego schools $40 million or more this year alone. The earmarked money could help plug that gap: More than $240 million out of the roughly $950 million that California was budgeted to give to San Diego Unified in its general fund this year came with specific restrictions on how it could be spent.

“If we don’t get flexibility, the fallback is a disaster,” said Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris.

Superintendent Terry Grier has argued that the stream of state funding earmarked for textbooks could be stretched further if schools could bend the rules that require the books to be regularly replaced, freeing some money to be used elsewhere with minimal impact on classrooms. That idea has been popular among San Diego Unified school board members, many of whom are looking to online textbooks instead of paper texts.

“You can make a good argument that a geometry formula stays the same,” Grier said. “But the fear is that the textbook lobbyists lobby very hard and this will go down the tube.”

Flexibility is not popular with everyone. Democratic lawmakers warring with Schwarzenegger have pushed to simply cut some of the earmarked funds instead of loosen the rules. Their plan would slash or eliminate funding for several programs, such as incentives to make overdue repairs on buildings and money for oral health screenings, but keep the overall system intact. Many funds are fiercely defended by educators, parents and industries that depend on the moneys to preserve their programs, from families of gifted and talented students to arts educators.

“It is like when you lose your job and something has to go, but you believe that dancing lessons are good for your kids,” said Karen Childress-Evans, director of visual and performing arts programs, who is alarmed by the potential loss of an $2.9 million arts and music grant that was expected to last several years. “You don’t want to take away the necessities for your kids while you cut corners.”

And even flexibility supporters say that flexibility alone cannot solve the problem.

“It is not going to be enough to mitigate the magnitude of these cuts,” said Adonai Mack, a legislative advocate with the Association of California School Administrators. “It is certainly important. It is something we need. But we need additional revenues. … We’re talking about cutting $2.5 billion midyear.”

Schwarzenegger is basically saying “you can decide how to spend the money we are not giving you,” quipped school board member Richard Barrera.

The flexibility plan is still on the table after Schwarzenegger shot down the Democrats’ proposal. But freeing the funds could be complicated both practically and politically. Some funds are unlikely to be dented even if the flexibility push is successful, such as funding for special education, which must be provided by federal law and is already underfunded, said Terry Anderson, senior director of legislative services for School Services of California, which guides school districts about finances and management.

San Diego Unified School Board President Shelia Jackson wants more fiscal flexibility but has qualms about freeing some of the funds, most notably those linked to poor children and those who are learning English. Proponents such as Anderson argue that with the rise of standardized testing systems such as No Child Left Behind that track how different ethnic and economic groups of students are scoring and hold schools accountable for the results, it is less important to link funding to specific groups of students. Schools should be free to spend the money however they want to achieve those results, Anderson argued, instead of being hamstrung by funding rules.

Jackson is unconvinced. “The funding has to get to the neediest children,” she said. “If we are doing such a great job targeting those students” under No Child Left Behind, “then we should be better off than we are.”

Fear that “money will be totally gobbled up into teacher compensation” and distrust of local school boards drove many legislators to cordon off money for specific purposes, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, who backs the idea of loosening the funds. Yet unions are not shouting for flexibility. A spokesman for the California Teachers Association said the union opposed freeing up funding that is dedicated to programs such as child nutrition, arts and music, and keeping classes small. It is less worried about restrictions on funding than whether schools have enough funding at all, and is now pushing for a penny increase in sales tax to benefit schools.

“I don’t hear [school districts and educational groups] making a lot of noise about flexibility right now because they are completely freaked out about cash,” said Joel Montero, chief executive office of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which advises school districts on finance. “They are trying to figure out how to keep the doors open and pay the bills.”

San Diego Education Association President Camille Zombro added that teachers unions also feel differently depending on which fund is at stake. Money to keep classes small might be important, Zombro said, but money to replace textbooks could be negotiable. Those are the same questions that the school board will weigh Tuesday afternoon before making more specific pitches to Sacramento.

“We have not actually sat down and had a focused discussion on A — the need to push Sacramento and B — for what?” Barrera 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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