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Wary of violating federal rules, the San Diego Unified school board changed its plans for using federal stimulus money tonight, bringing a controversial plan for small classes to a different group of schools than originally planned.

Smaller classes of 15 students per teacher in grades K-2 will be introduced to 23 elementary schools that have repeatedly fallen short of No Child Left Behind testing targets where 90 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

The board also decided to include two additional elementary schools that did not meet the 90 percent poverty threshold but have repeatedly struggled with test scores, bringing the total number of schools with the smaller classes thanks to the stimulus up to 25.

Many of these schools were not in the group of 29 schools that originally benefited from the program, and some schools that enjoyed small classes before will be left out.

The change in which schools are participating in the program came after Superintendent Terry Grier said that advocates familiar with the stimulus warned that it would be difficult to explain to federal auditors, who will be reviewing how San Diego Unified spends the stimulus money, why the school district was affording the small classes to some impoverished schools and not others.

The same objection was raised by parent advocate David Page, who had planned to file a legal complaint if the initial plan went through. The original program, which was initiated as a research study last year, included a mix of schools in both rich and poor neighborhoods.

“The easiest, cleanest way is to go strictly by free and reduced lunch” percentages, Grier said. He was resistant to the idea of mixing the criteria of poverty and student achievement, repeatedly saying that it would be “harder to justify” to auditors. The school board held off on finalizing a similar plan for using stimulus money last week, worrying that it might cause problems with those same auditors.

But the plan to use both poverty and student scores to pick the schools ultimately passed, with board members Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson behind it. When asked how the school district would be able to justify picking two additional schools — Encanto and Adams elementary schools — that did not meet their basic criteria for the smaller classes, Grier said, “That was the question I had.”

Barrera, who introduced the idea, proposed allocating $9 million of the stimulus money to create the smaller classes at the schools. Grier said the exact costs of the plan are still unknown because it depends on the actual salaries of the teachers involved and will be calculated by staffers. It will likely consume the bulk of the $13.7 million in stimulus funds earmarked for disadvantaged students this year.

Board member Katherine Nakamura, who voted against the plan, said it prioritized the needs of adults over what was best for children. The plan is expected to provide dozens of jobs to elementary school teachers who are currently left with nowhere to teach, despite their right to a job in the district, solving a budget problem that has deviled San Diego Unified over the past month.

Some schools will get more teachers even if they do not have enough classrooms to house an increased number of smaller classes, Grier said. The superintendent said staff would counsel the schools on “research-based programs” to use the additional teachers so that they would still meet the reform aims of the stimulus bill.

EMILY ALPERT

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