Today the San Diego Unified school board narrowly approved using more than $15.3 million in categorical money — funds that are normally earmarked for specific purposes — to help close its estimated $46 million gap for the current school year. The action pulled unspent funds and leftover grant money from schools.

School board member John de Beck complained that it would encourage schools to spent money wastefully. He invoked the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper.

“These people who are the ants, who actually think ahead, are penalized because we don’t think ahead,” he said before voting against the motion along with school board member Katherine Nakamura.

The school district believed the funding problem for the current year was solved weeks ago, when it approved more than $33 million in cuts and savings to balance its books. But updated numbers from the state legislature revealed that the problem was bigger than originally expected. The state also required schools to cut from specific funds instead of allowing them total freedom to make the cuts wherever it believed best.

San Diego Unified solved the problem by using leftover money from grants and earmarked money that was as yet unspent at school sites. It cleaned out a number of funds set aside for musical instruments and art supplies, gym equipment, school gardens, counseling, field trips and supplies for gifted students, and home visits to parents who cannot meet with teachers or other staff during school hours, among other uses.

Staffers said the money was available from expired grants and money set aside after the recent freeze on school spending, which forced schools to get approval for every new expense. Superintendent Terry Grier said it will mean a “double hit” for schools next year because the funds will not be carried over, giving schools less of the earmarked money to start with, and the same moneys will likely be cut an estimated 20 percent by the state next year.

John Lee Evans, the school board member who moved to accept the plan, said that the move would not discontinue arts, music or athletics programs. School board President Shelia Jackson, who also voted to support it, emphasized the severity of the crisis that had forced the cuts.

“We all need to recognize that we are not in business-as-usual format,” she said.

And their work is not over: The school district now must figure out how to balance its budget for next year, currently believed to suffer a shortfall of more than $71 million, and is trying to do so without layoffs. Superintendent Terry Grier also said staffers were hit late this week by yet another surprise from the state: More limits on which earmarked funds it can use to close the funding gap.

“We’re scrambling around to see how much that has impacted us,” he said.

The school board will meet again to discuss the budget crisis Tuesday.


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