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For the first time in nearly a decade, San Diego Unified is changing how it divvies up federal funding earmarked for economically disadvantaged students, concentrating more money on schools with the highest concentrations of poverty.

The decision completely cuts off such funding to 32 schools with somewhat lower percentages of poverty, breaking with the advice of both San Diego Unified staff and with a parent committee charged with overseeing the funds.

“We’re kind of in shock right now,” Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris said immediately after the decision.

The cutoff coincides with an expected windfall in the funds for San Diego Unified under the federal economic stimulus plan. The district estimates that it will receive an additional $5 million above the $19 million in such federal money received this school year. The new plan means that the larger sum will be spread among a smaller group of schools.

The federal funding has historically been given to all San Diego Unified schools where more than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, as is permitted under federal law. Schools have received the money based on tiers, with the schools with the highest percentages of poor children getting more money per student than schools with somewhat lower percentages.

That system has long been debated, and a plan to concentrate more of the money in the poorest schools failed last year, even with the backing of the parent committee. The new plan was strongly supported by school board member Shelia Jackson, who was overruled by a majority of the former board. She derided the existing structure as spreading the money too thinly to have any effect.

Now a new San Diego Unified board with Jackson as its president is taking the path that the last board rejected: Only schools with 60 percent or more economically disadvantaged will get the funding. Tiers are gone and all eligible schools will get the same amount — $432 — per disadvantaged student. The decision passed 3-2 with John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura dissenting.

De Beck warned that cutting the funding to some schools could lead to laying off employees whose salaries were paid by the dollars — an assertion that Morris was unable to confirm Tuesday night. (See this update for a full list of the schools.) The cutoff means that Wangenheim Middle School, where 52 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, will lose nearly $78,000.

“These are not really wealthy schools,” she said, adding, “There is no one here who is standing up and complaining because they don’t know yet.”

Morris and Superintendent Terry Grier had recommended abolishing the tier system but continuing to give the money to schools with 40 percent of poverty or more; a parent committee narrowly recommended the status quo. Grier said he supports concentrating the money in the poorest schools but had not recommended that change because he felt the shift would be too painful, especially in a tough budget year.

The whole discussion of where to put the dollars was underscored by a larger question of how effectively schools have used the money. Morris promised to scrutinize school plans for using the funds more closely; Grier favors paying for preschool or lengthening the school year with the money, as he did in his previous district in North Carolina.

(Update: The original version of this post misstated that several specific schools would lose funding under the new plan, based on a misreading of the chart by school board member Katherine Nakamura at the meeting yesterday. I regret the error.)

EMILY ALPERT

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