San Diego Unified is under pressure from California and the federal government to make dramatic changes at its lowest performing schools. The carrot is up to $4 million for each of its three eligible schools. The stick is — well, there is no stick.

But the school district has decided that it won’t bite at that carrot. Instead, it will set forth its own plans for the schools, whether or not they meet the government guidelines.

Doing so could make the school district unlikely to get the funding, but the school board says figuring out what schools need to improve — not what they need to get the money — is their goal.

“Let’s apply for the money,” school board President Richard Barrera said. “But let’s not throw our schools into chaos because we’re chasing money.”

Up to $4 million is available for each of the three schools that landed on a state list of persistently failing schools last month: Burbank Elementary and two of the schools-within-a-school at San Diego High, the School of Business and the School of Media, Visual and Performing Arts. The money is meant to fund “turnarounds” — one of four prescribed ways of fixing schools that are backed by the Obama Administration — if they apply by June.

Turnarounds could mean replacing the principal and more than half of school staff, converting into a charter school, closing down or a fourth, less defined option that includes adding more school time, revamping instruction and still replacing the principal. Critics such as Barrera have complained that those options are too limiting and don’t allow for enough local control.

California insists that even if failing schools don’t apply for the money, they still have to choose one of those turnaround options. But if schools don’t go for the money, they have no deadline to make the changes. And California doesn’t have any way to enforce that rule.

So San Diego Unified has decided to set forth its own plans to fix the schools, whether or not they match the models the Obama Administration has promoted.

Burbank Elementary, for instance, has lots of teacher turnover and needs more stability, not a shakeup, said Nellie Meyer, the interim deputy superintendent. Replacing its staff or the principal wouldn’t make sense. Instead, the school district is proposing that Burbank give teachers weekly planning sessions, devote more of the principal’s time to observing classrooms and other homegrown strategies.

Whether that would win Burbank money in the state competition is unclear. But the school board said that isn’t the point. The two schools within San Diego High might not even apply for the grants. This isn’t the first time that San Diego Unified has parted ways with Obama school reforms; the school district also decided against joining the California application for federal stimulus money known as Race to the Top.

“We have to find out what’s best for our schools,” said board member Shelia Jackson. “That should be our driving factor.”

— EMILY ALPERT

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