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Tongue depressors: $6.20. Tubes of petroleum jelly: $36.98. A mask to revive someone who isn’t breathing: $57.75. Wangenheim Middle in Mira Mesa spent more than $1,000 on medical supplies for all its students this year, using federal money meant to only help disadvantaged children.

The school district had told Wangenheim it wasn’t supposed to do that. San Diego Unified has long warned its school principals that they shouldn’t spend any federal money for disadvantaged kids on things like medical supplies, athletic equipment and custodial supplies.

“It’s probably a mistake on my part,” former principal Lamont Jackson said, adding that the school district would be able to catch mistakes like that.

But the school district doesn’t always. A simple review of the district by voiceofsandiego.org easily found more than $3,500 in thermometers, carpet cleaner and other purchases that contradict San Diego Unified guidelines on how schools should spend federal money earmarked to help its neediest students.

It happened at schools across the city. Point Loma High spent more than $800 on exercise balls and other gym supplies and planned to use more for workout DVDs like “Dancing With the Stars: Latin Cardio Dance.” Other schools also planned hundreds more dollars in similar spending.

Many principals chalked up the mistakes to clerical errors and said they would switch the purchases to a different account after VOSD inquired. The money is a sliver of the almost $46 million in Title I federal funding that San Diego Unified got for disadvantaged students this past year.


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But the problem is bigger than a small glitch and more important than just the bottom line. The federal funds are meant to close the achievement gap. Schools are bound by complicated rules to avoid letting the dollars get sucked up for basic costs that school districts should be shouldering themselves.

“It takes away from the primary purpose of Title I — to have a direct impact on student achievement,” said Zollie Stevenson Jr., who used to oversee the federal funds at the U.S. Department of Education. “Other local funds are supposed to pay for those things. It shouldn’t supercede what already exists.”

And the fact that several schools used the money to stock their nurses, custodians and athletic programs — despite repeated and explicit warnings not to — raises another red flag about how closely San Diego Unified watches its money for disadvantaged kids. Not all errors are so obvious.

San Diego Unified has run into trouble with the federal funding before. It was forced to repay nearly $700,000 after wrongly using some of the federal money to pay bonuses to encourage employees to leave the district. It used more than $2,000 of the funding to send former superintendent Terry Grier to a conference where he may have run afoul of federal rules that bar spending the money on lobbying. He spent the money picking up the tab for expensive meals for himself, district staffers and trustees.

Schools are supposed to use the federal money to help their neediest kids succeed academically, because the challenges they face outside school can put them at a disadvantage inside the classroom. But as budgets tighten, parents worry schools may be tempted to use federal money to fill in the gaps instead.

San Diego Unified urges schools to weigh several questions as they plan how to spend it: Is it good for students? Does it directly help kids succeed academically? And does it help us reach school goals?

Disputes sometimes break out over how schools answer those questions. Lincoln High set aside $500 in federal funds for a steel drum band to perform for kids with perfect attendance this year, an incentive to show up to class, said Ana Shapiro, one of its principals. She said it was appropriate and justified.

But the school district shifted the spending after parent leader David Page complained it violated the federal ban on paying for entertainment. The U.S. Department of Education says in most cases, the funds should be used for academics, not peripheral costs such as athletics or playground equipment. San Diego Unified has gone a step further than the federal guidance, telling principals that specific kinds of spending are off limits.

Some school district guidelines have shifted from year to year, but for the past decade San Diego Unified has consistently advised its school principals not to use the money on athletic equipment, medical or custodial supplies. It once listed them under the words “No! No! No! No!” in a memo.

Outside experts said San Diego’s guidelines made sense. Stevenson Jr. said he doubted that medical or athletic supplies directly boost student achievement. Spending should be tied to instruction, said Richard Long, executive director for government relations at the National Title I Association.

“So generally speaking, are these dollars to be used for medical supplies?” Long asked. “My answer would be no.”

Yet mistakes have still occurred. Some principals said the charges were an accident: Central Elementary Principal Cindy Marten said her school erroneously charged more than $700 in Vaseline, gauze sponges and other medical supplies to the federal fund because of a computer coding error.

Marten said she would fix the error. So did the principals of Dana Middle School and Point Loma High, both of whom chalked up Title I spending on medical or athletic supplies to clerical mistakes.

Other schools weren’t sure what happened. Hoover High paid for $424 in rags, vacuum cleaner filters and other cleaning supplies with the federal funds. Principal Chuck Podhorsky said he would review the spending to figure out what happened.

And one argued that the spending was allowed. Field Elementary in Clairemont spent more than $100 on jump ropes and tetherballs, but a school secretary said since the supplies were for physical education classes, they didn’t count as athletic equipment. (Principal Yesenia Robinson was unavailable to discuss it.)

Spending on medical and cleaning supplies, which San Diego Unified has told schools are forbidden, throws into question how well it can monitor other, less obvious missteps with the federal funds. Federal rules say the money is supposed to add extras for kids, not foot the bill for the basics that districts should provide. If San Diego Unified makes the sundae, the federal funds are the cherry on top.

But as California guts school budgets, parents fear that local schools will try to plug the gaps with federal funds. That’s what worries Amy Redding, a Fletcher Elementary mom who leads a San Diego Unified efficiency committee examining how well the money has been spent. Parents on her committee have been dubious of schools spending the money on mundane things like clocks or chairs.

“The worry is that these dollars are being used to cover holes, not adding programs,” Redding said.

Federal and state officials check on the spending, but the first line of defense is the school district itself. Vikki Henton, manager of the department that monitors the federal money, said San Diego Unified checks over proposed spending for each school in its annual plans. Committees at each school vet those plans and any changes over the school year.

But the plans often don’t get into the details of what exactly schools will buy, listing broad categories such as “instructional supplies.” Page, who heads up another parent committee, says Henton and her department have been too permissive about the spending.

The committee that Redding leads has recommended that San Diego Unified do rolling audits of spending at each school, including whether Title I dollars were spent legally and effectively. It also wants actual purchases to be posted online month by month.

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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