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Many parents were furious and staffers were stunned two weeks ago when San Diego Unified changed the way it gave out federal money for disadvantaged students by raising the poverty threshold for schools to get the funds. It helped the schools with the highest percentages of poor children at the expense of schools with lower — but still significant — concentrations of poor students.

Now the school board has reversed that controversial stand and chosen an entirely new way to fund schools that will not only restore the funds that some schools stood to lose, but could actually provide more money to eligible schools with lower percentages of poverty and less to some of the most densely impoverished schools than in years past.

“I feel like I made an honest mistake when we voted on this last time,” said school board member Richard Barrera, who voted for the first plan and later reconsidered. “I made a decision when I should have been asking questions.”

The debate erupted two weeks ago when the school board cut off federal money for disadvantaged students to schools with lower percentages of impoverished students and reallocated it to schools with heavier concentrations of poverty. The switch was championed by school board President Shelia Jackson, who has often complained that the money is spread too thinly among schools to be effective.

But the dramatic change alarmed principals and staffers at the losing schools where 40 to 59 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price lunches, who said their schools were hardly wealthy and badly needed the funds, especially as a budget crisis looms.

“We do much with very, very little,” said Diane Curiel, a 2nd-grade teacher at Toler Elementary School, which stood to lose money under the change. Fifty-seven percent of its students are considered low income. “To take that money away from us, you are going to shoot us in the leg.”

Tuesday night the school board changed course dramatically. It voted to keep giving funds to all schools where more than 40 percent of students come from low income families, as it has done in the past, but to give all schools the same amount per student. Schools have previously received more or less money per student based on tiers of poverty. The new method was originally recommended by San Diego Unified staff but not by a parent committee that oversees the funds, which had pushed for no change at all.

Board members Barrera, Katherine Nakamura and John de Beck voted for the change, overruling Jackson and John Lee Evans. The reversal prompted some cautionary advice from David Page, the parent leader of the committee on the federal funds.

“Look at the data and base it on that — not just on kneejerk (things like) who is crying and who is not,” Page said. “I hope your next decision is based on data.”

Update: Evans contacted me to make sure that readers understand that while he voted against the proposal that ultimately passed, he did want the threshhold lowered to 40 percent, but he wanted it done in tiers based on levels of poverty.

EMILY ALPERT

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