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Seeking more funding anywhere it can find it, San Diego Unified now says it can tap money passed to schools from downtown redevelopment to spare teachers, nurses and other workers — funds it once thought could only be used to repair and maintain school buildings downtown.

The idea helped pave the way for a bold and controversial plan plugged by school board President Richard Barrera to draw on $64 million in future redevelopment money to combat the district’s estimated $120 million deficit.

While that could help dampen budget cuts suffered by schools, it also changes the political calculus for spending the redevelopment funds that schools are already guaranteed to get. San Diego Unified is now faced with new choices: If redevelopment money can be spent to lessen layoffs, should it be?

Money once used chiefly for school repairs and upkeep is now on the budget table, competing with beloved programs and tearful employees. Dollars now earmarked to lease school space in the planned downtown library, for instance, could be used to save teachers instead.

San Diego Unified gets more than $4.5 million annually from the Centre City Development Corp., a sum that is supposed to more than triple in two years. For a school system undergoing perennial cuts, that money has often been frustratingly out of reach. When budget staffers explained the deficit to the school board this fall, they lumped in redevelopment money with sources that were off limits to solve their budget problems.

Then last week, school district attorney Andra Donovan assured the school board that the money could be used to pay teachers and other employees, along with any other educational program costs.

That was news to the school board and downtown boosters, many of whom assumed the money could only be used to build, renovate and maintain downtown schools, not run the programs inside them.

For instance, at Washington Elementary in Little Italy, Principal Janie Wardlow was grateful to get $700,000 in redevelopment money this year — funds that have helped repaint her school, remodel the bathrooms, install security cameras and more over the past few years. But two years ago, when she asked San Diego Unified attorneys whether she could use the money to train teachers to start up an International Baccalaureate program, Wardlow said they turned it down.

A 1992 pact between schools and the city sets out how they share taxes from downtown redevelopment. The agreement says money can be used for school construction, maintenance and “the provision of related educational programs.” Donovan wrote it could therefore be spent on teachers.

“We assumed it wasn’t for salaries,” said Sherm Harmer, a developer who sits on an education task force at the Centre City Development Corp. that studies downtown school issues. “They always had ample funds for salaries. But they may have the right to do whatever they want.”

Ethan Walsh, an attorney representing the California Redevelopment Association, said he doesn’t believe any state law would require the money to be spent on school facilities. It depends on what is in the local pact, Walsh said. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has yet to research and weigh in on the issue.

Allowing the school district to use the money on teachers means San Diego Unified could turn to redevelopment dollars to help plug its deficit. Barrera argued the city should advance the schools $64 million in redevelopment dollars that the district is now scheduled to get between 2018 and 2020.

That hefty payment could wipe out half of its dreaded deficit for the next school year. Without it, schools are bracing for bigger classes, fewer counselors and nurses and the gutting of arts programs. More than 1,300 workers would lose their jobs.

Barrera also wants the city to amend the agreement to allow redevelopment money to be spent anywhere in the school district, not just downtown. But even if the city brushes off his plan, the legal opinion will pressure San Diego Unified to plumb the redevelopment money it already has to lessen layoffs.

Using the money on buildings was “just one of those things we’ve done a certain way and continued to do,” said Bill Freeman, president of the teachers union, who backs the idea of using the redevelopment money to reduce layoffs. “But if there is any way we can get money to help kids, we should do that.”

For instance, the school district plans to spend $17 million in redevelopment funds to lease and furnish space for a charter school in the downtown library. That helped San Diego Unified devote less money from its $2.1 billion construction and renovation bond, freeing up more bond money to repair and renovate other schools sooner.

Several school board members asked staff what the redevelopment money would be used on otherwise. Stu Markey, who was then overseeing the bond, said the funds went to building and janitorial costs. The school board saw that as a reasonable tradeoff and voted to devote the money to the library.

But now that Barrera knows that redevelopment money could also save teachers and nurses, he plans to propose that San Diego Unified shift at least $7 million in costs back to the bond. That could free up enough money to reinstate extra funding for magnet schools or keep kindergarten classes from bloating.

However, it would also delay other school repairs and renovations, incensing families who believe a new school couched in the downtown library shouldn’t come before their projects. The school district only gets so much bond money each year, which means if it spends money on one expensive project, it has to wait to fund other ones. It is just one of the tradeoffs that the school board now must weigh.

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

Emily Alpert

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

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