Rusting weight machines sit in batting cages next to the football field at Point Loma High School, exiled from a classroom trailer that was condemned and then removed.

Parents are relieved that’s finally going to change. Point Loma High is getting a new weight room — but not because budget cuts have let up in San Diego Unified schools. The school snagged a $90,000 grant from a NASCAR racing champion and Lowe’s Home Improvement after teens made their case in a pleading video and parents wrote an application.

It isn’t the only bright spot on campus in the midst of budget cuts: New buildings for filmmaking, music and athletics are cropping up thanks to state grants for career education. Another grant pays for science tutoring, dance troupes, field trips and other activities after school. Grants were rare at Point Loma High before, Principal Bobbie Samilson said, but in this economy it’s the way to go.

Grants to help schools are nothing new. There are government grants from California and the feds. There are private grants from big corporations and little nonprofits. Grants have long fed money to schools to launch or temporarily try out programs that go beyond the basics, such as surveying teens about their drug and alcohol use or buy supplies that will outlast the temporary money.

But grants are playing an increasingly important role for schools as traditional funding sources continue to dry up and principals brace for future cuts.

School leaders say that year by year, as state funding has been cut, the quest for other funds has grown more pressing. Some parents and principals have taken to hunting for funding like entrepreneurs, devoting hours to shining up their applications and seeking other funds. Schools have even turned to grants to cover the costs of books or other basics that their ordinary funding would once have covered.

“It’s just a reality of the job,” said Scott Giusti, principal of Mira Mesa High School. When he interviewed for his job, parents and community members grilled him about how he would get funding. “I thought it’d be all about instruction and the safety of the kids. Now it’s like being a CEO. Go out and get money.”

And Mira Mesa High has. One grant funds an extra class for struggling readers. The California Restaurant Association has helped culinary classes survive, even bankrolling groceries, by partnering with the school district. Giusti has even spent time on teacher training days on how to seek donations online. And the school is now trying to get $20,000 from Motorola to beef up science and math education.

That doesn’t mean that schools like Mira Mesa High or Point Loma High have escaped the budget cuts unscathed. San Diego Unified is planning to cut an estimated $87 million to survive state cuts. Samilson points out chipped concrete walls that have gone unfixed and bemoans the loss of vice principals and an employee who helped link teens with jobs. Grants have helped her school — but they only help so much.

It’s yet another symptom of the schizophrenic system of school funding in California: Money for schools comes from dozens of different sources, each with its own rules on how to spend it. So while schools shorten the year and send their newest teachers packing, they are expanding automotive classes to explore the use of alternative fuels and building kitchens for culinary arts classes. Critics say though grants can do good work, chasing them can make schools scramble to do things for the wrong reasons.

“I can get a bunch of money to get everybody a laptop, because technology companies will fund it,” said Thomas Alsbury, an associate professor of educational leadership at North Carolina State University. “But what if what I really need is more counselors for homeless students or more tutors?”

San Diego Unified and its schools have applied for more than $43 million in government and private grants so far this school year — and that doesn’t count smaller grants that schools don’t bother to tell the school district about. Between July 2009 and February 2010, schools snapped up at least $39.5 million in grants.

All that money might seem like a gold mine for strapped schools. But grants aren’t a seamless solution. Vying for a grant takes time — time that some principals say they just don’t have. While San Diego Unified has a coordinator who helps seek out and track grants, district departments and sometimes individual schools still have to do the actual work of penning an application.

“It became a full-time job,” said Lisa Tumbiolo, a parent volunteer at Point Loma High who helped write the winning grant for a new weight room when Samilson said she didn’t have the time.

And the larger problem is that even when schools have the time to snap them up, private and even government grants don’t necessarily fill the holes that state budget cuts have left. Nobody is upset about getting money. But grants won’t last; the money may dry up in just a few years. Some are also for extremely specific purposes, such as teaching children about Sherlock Holmes, outdoor structures to keep children shaded from the sun or fresh fruit and vegetable snacks for children.

Dangling money can also raise worries about giving outside groups more sway over what happens in public schools, for better or worse. Private foundations in Washington D.C. have said they could withdraw money if the superintendent changes, for instance.

School districts may also have more freedom to try out politically unpopular ideas if someone else pays for it, said Allison Hausman, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies.

But in recent years, that hasn’t been the thrust of school philanthropy in San Diego, said local businessman Rod Dammeyer, who earlier helped fund schools in Chicago through a private group. Compared to Chicago and other big cities, Dammeyer said school giving here has been small and disjointed. Outside groups haven’t used their financial heft systematically to encourage specific kinds of change.

There are other, more practical limits to grant funding. The Barona Band of Mission Indians bars schools from using its $5,000 grants to pay wages. Government affairs director Sheilla Alvarez said they want schools to spend the money instead on tangible things that will stay in the classroom, such as books.

Even if funders don’t tell them to, schools generally try to avoid using grants for employees who will outlast the money. That was the problem that San Diego Unified ran into with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped it break high schools up into smaller schools-within-a-school.

The money ran out, but the school district is still operating the small high schools, which cost more because each school has its own principal. Some are now being pressed to cut their costs. Chief District Relations Officer Bernie Rhinerson said the school district is also reluctant to accept grants that require schools to chip in, something it used to do more readily.

For instance, California is shelling out millions to schools to build new facilities for career education. Mira Mesa High dreams of building a new television station and a graphics design studio, as well as remodeling its culinary arts kitchen. But if San Diego Unified doesn’t find funding to match what California chips in, it can’t get the grant, said Shawn Loescher, director of college, career and technical education.

“The money is out there,” said Jolie Pickett, principal of the alternative Garfield High School. It has won several grants, which helped pay for everything from a state-of-the-art kitchen to college textbooks. “It just takes a tremendous amount of energy and time to get it.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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