The San Diego Unified school board voted to spend more than $10 million in federal stimulus money meant for children in poverty on two projects, including continuing a controversial program that reduced class sizes for the youngest students at a dozen select schools. The decision was applauded by schools that benefited from the plan such as Central Elementary, which feared major staffing turnover if the plan were not revived. Others complained that it was unfair to give some schools the tiny classes and not others.

“When will Balboa gets its chance?” asked Trina Nouvong, a kindergarten teacher at Balboa Elementary, which does not have the smaller classes.

The board worried that the class size project might violate federal rules on using the earmarked money to replace existing spending, which staffers said could get the school district in trouble later. School board members ruefully invoked a recent penalty imposed on San Diego Unified by the federal government for misspending federal money six years ago on a golden handshake, which forced the scool district to repay money into its own federally funded education programs.

“We’ve had to pay a bill for that,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura.

To hedge against that possibility, the school board added a caveat: The plan will not go forward if the school district cannot get a written reassurance from the federal government that the plan will not get them into hot water later on. Nakamura was the sole board member to vote against using the dollars on keeping the smaller classes and using another $3.5 million to offset the amount of federal money taken away by the state this year.

The decisions leave more than $3 million of the stimulus money unspent. The school board decided to wait on figuring out how to use the rest of the dollars as the meeting rolled late into the evening.

The question of how to spend the federal money has grown contentious over the summer, with clusters of schools originally pressed to create competitive plans for using the funds, which sparked objections from the parent committee charged with overseeing the money and from the teachers union. Board members complained that that process, now dropped, had divided the district.

“We wasted everybody’s time for the last several months to the point where tonight we have to make decisions that are pitting schools” against schools, board member Richard Barrera said.

Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris defended the process used to come up with the stimulus ideas. “This didn’t just happen overnight,” he said.


Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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