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The San Diego Unified board nearly didn’t pass its budget last night because three board members said they were uneasy with the choices they made — including the choice to use federal funding for disadvantaged students to pay for counselors and graduation coaches at its poorer schools.

Critics and a state official say the move appears to be illegal because schools are supposed to provide equal services to all schools with their basic funding. The special federal money is supposed to pay for the extra needs of poor children, not pay for things the district would foot the bill for anyway.

Board member Shelia Jackson explicitly mentioned the federal funds in explaining why she didn’t vote for the budget along with frequent board dissident John de Beck. A third board member, Katherine Nakamura, ultimately changed her vote from no to yes to let the budget pass, but said that undoing the federal funds move should be a top priority if the school district gets more money.

Maybe that uneasiness explains why the school board has also declined to let voiceofsandiego.org see the legal advice that San Diego Unified got to back up its budget decision.

The school district paid an outside law firm $5,000 to evaluate whether the controversial idea is legal. This is an important bit of legal advice because if the school district gets this wrong, schools might have to repay federal funding for disadvantaged students in the future.

The information isn’t automatically public because it is advice from an attorney to his or her clients. But the school board could decide to waive that protection and let us see it anyway.

Two weeks ago, I asked them to do that. They didn’t. School district attorney Mark Bresee let me know earlier this week that the board had opted to keep its legal advice to itself.

The school district has argued that its decision is legal because it is using stimulus money, not its own ordinary funding, to pay for counselors and graduation coaches at other schools. They believe that the stimulus money does not fall under the same rules that the critics have cited.

Want to know more? Read our earlier article for a deeper explanation of the legal issues at stake and how this has cropped up for San Diego Unified in the past.

— EMILY ALPERT

Dagny Salas

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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