When voters ushered in two new San Diego Unified school board members, they may have also tilted the balance on a politically tricky issue: How to divide up money for disadvantaged kids.

Right now, San Diego Unified gives $23 million in federal funds to schools where at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free meals. San Diego Unified splits the eligible schools up into three tiers based on their poverty level and gives the poorest schools more money for each disadvantaged student. So it funds a wide swath of schools — but concentrates the money on the poorest ones.

It’s not the bulk of funding that schools get, but it makes a big difference at eligible schools, ranging from roughly $30,000 at small schools with fewer poor children to more than $900,000 at Hoover High, a big school where almost all students qualify for free lunches.

Some educators and parents have argued that focusing all the money on schools where at least 75 percent of students are poor would be a better way to help close the achievement gap. School board President Richard Barrera backs the idea of upping the threshold bit by bit over five years.

New school board member Scott Barnett says he likes the idea. “The philosophy is, where there is an intense population of poorer kids, let’s focus more dollars there,” Barnett said. His vote could tip the scale because he replaced board member John de Beck, who opposed making the move two years ago.

Back then, San Diego Unified floated the idea. Board member Shelia Jackson championed the move and Barrera and John Lee Evans voted to back it — one of their first votes after they were elected.

But after parents and educators whose schools would lose funding protested, the school board changed its mind and opted for a plan that would give all eligible schools the same amount of money per student. More protests followed, this time from the highest-poverty schools.

So the school board changed its mind again. It opted for the status quo. And that is largely what parents have pushed it to do again. David Page, who leads a parent committee on disadvantaged students, opposes shifting the money.

“Students who are poor … are only going to be served based on geography, not necessarily their needs,” Page said. “If you don’t happen to be living in one of the areas that are 75 percent (in poverty) or above, you get no services — because of geography.”

If Barrera and Evans learned one thing from that confusing charade two years ago, it’s that the safest thing to do politically is nothing, at least when it comes to this chunk of funds.

Maybe that’s why Barrera is moving slowly. He says he doesn’t want to change everything right away, but create a five-year plan that would slowly move funds to the highest poverty schools. Even if the change is gradual, it would still be a seismic shift that would anger the schools that lose out.

So far I haven’t been able to reach the other new board member, Kevin Beiser, to ask where he stands. Like Barnett, Beiser replaced a board member who had opposed the change, Katherine Nakamura.

The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on how to allocate nearly $22 million in the federal funds for next year. If they decide to change it — in any way — you can expect fireworks.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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