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More than two years ago, former San Diego Unified Superintendent Terry Grier was worried. He didn’t believe the school board understood the severe consequences of insolvency, so he scheduled a private briefing from the man who’d led the last takeover of a large California school district.

“They just didn’t believe the state elected officials could or would allow it to happen,” Grier said.

The anecdote highlights how talk of insolvency in the San Diego Unified School District is nothing new, despite the hubbub created this month by its leaders’ warnings of a state takeover. In fact, the word has hung heavy over school board decisions over the last several years, Will Carless and I report in our latest story on the district’s financial moves.

“In light of California’s continued economic problems and those serious ongoing discussions about insolvency, those gambles have begun to look misguided at best and reckless at worst,” we report.

If you need to get caught up on the story of the district’s insolvency, start with our readers guide and our examination of how the district pushed itself toward the brink of insolvency. Last week, we sat down with the school board president for a back-and-forth on those decisions and his proposed solutions. As is the case with lots of education stories, a lively conversation has broken out in the Q&A’s comments.

Food-Stamp Fix Goes Backwards

To help rectify the county of San Diego’s famously impenetrable food-stamp program, officials proposed cutting the wait time on the hotline that’s supposed to make it easier for the working poor to access help without skipping work.

Instead, that wait time has increased, Adrian Florido reports. And that’s just for the people that get through. Only 18 percent of callers connect. The rest receive a message and then their call gets dropped.

County officials attribute the wait to an 80 percent increase in food stamp recipients and recent changes to their system. “But advocates say the worsening phone line problems have elevated a bureaucratic hurdle that makes it difficult for many poor people to get the help for which they’re eligible,” Florido writes.

This is a follow-up to our 2010 investigation showing how the county government’s historical resistance to provide social welfare programs had left it at or near the bottom in connecting residents with the aid they’re eligible for when compared to California’s other largest counties.

Decision on $200 Billion Transit Plan, then Maybe Chargers Stadium

• It has $200 billion to spend on roads and public transit over the next four decades, and a plan on how to spend it.

The region’s planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, is set to take a final vote on the 2050 transportation plan this Friday. (North County Times) The plan has come under increasing scrutiny as of late for not prioritizing public transit enough and by the state attorney general for failing to significantly address greenhouse gas emissions.

For the basics, check out our list of five things to know about the plan and our San Diego Explained.

• Sandag could be a busy group. Mayor Jerry Sanders says he’s working with it to develop ideas for financing a new Chargers stadium in a Q&A with the Union-Tribune. The mayor has been pushing to make it a regional, not just city, effort and Sandag would be a logical place.

Sanders wants to put a plan before voters in his term, which expires this year, and Sandag is not only in charge of regional planning, but is one of the few agencies with any success in passing tax increases — its TransNet sales tax increases fund those transit plans they’re making right now.

The mayor also indicated he’d be open to essentially using the money the city is losing operating Qualcomm Stadium to finance the new stadium, and explained why he’s hired another outside consultant to help with the plan: “One reason you hire these financing firms is they have all sorts of out-of-the-box thinking on how you create different financing mechanisms to create a $3 million or a $5 million stream a year. In bureaucracy, we don’t think that way.”

NYT Hitting Home

• Farmers in the Imperial Valley are getting paid not to work. Don’t use the region’s water for your crops, and you can make more than the market value of those crops per acre. The water saved ships off to the big, arid cities that need it — like San Diego.

The New York Times examines that decision facing farmers and the long-term impacts it could have on the Imperial Valley’s economy. “Working farms provide jobs and income to their many suppliers. There are 450 farmers in the Imperial Valley, but half the jobs held by the 174,000 residents are tied to agriculture,” the paper says. “When land is idled, the communities around the farms can wither.”

• It’s not San Diego or California, but it could very well be someday. The Times looks at the grave troubles faced by Rhode Island government finances, highlighted by its pension debts, and comes up with this kicker:

“As Wall Street fixates on the financial disaster in Greece, a fiscal wreck is playing out right here. And the odds are that it won’t be the last. Before this is over, many Americans may be forced to rethink what government means at the state and local level.”

How Escondido Is Doing, Four Years After the Fire

Of the 73 Escondido homes destroyed by the 2007 Witch Fire, 58 have been rebuilt, the NCT says in an update on the city’s progress four years later.

Inadequate insurance, strict permits, job losses and divorces, as well as the time spent suing SDG&E, have kept the others from rebuilding. “Even the families able to rebuild have complained about long negotiations with insurance companies about the difference between the actual value of their home versus the replacement value; the daunting task of designing and building a home from scratch; and the hassles of renting a home during the rebuilding,” the paper reports.

Space Is Filling Up Fast!

The stories we write, the narratives we follow, the investigations we undertake, the tales we take to television and radio, come about because of our growing band of members. We’re a nonprofit and this public service we provide relies on donations.

We set an ambitious goal of adding 125 new members and raising $20,000 this month.

Well, we’re almost there. (Check out the long list of donors from October.) 

We’re only nine new members away. So, jump aboard and help us as we try to tell the stories no one else is telling, help equip you to make informed decisions and simply make San Diego a better place. We have a whole program of membership benefits lined up, including our members survey, and meetings to share coffee, beer and ideas with us. Donate today.

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I’m the editor of VOSD. You can reach me at andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526.

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