The San Diego Unified school board is waffling on a plan to pull federal money for disadvantaged students from some schools to give it to those with the highest poverty levels, leaving it poised to undo one of its most bitterly contested decisions. Backtracking would indicate a huge shift in the school board’s strategy to help poor students catch up to their better-off classmates in San Diego Unified.

The school district has been planning to gradually shift roughly $21 million in federal money for disadvantaged students away from schools with lower percentages of poor children and give it only to those where at least 75 percent of students get free or reduced price lunches. The change was supposed to happen over five years, pulling the money away from more and more schools each year. An estimated 59 schools would lose funds.

The decision was meant to tackle the dragging achievement of the poorest schools, many of which are in the southern stretches of the school district like City Heights and Skyline. The federal money is meant to address the greater needs of poor children and help them catch up to their wealthier classmates, who typically perform better in school.

Schools decide how to spend the money to help poor students, buying things like extra counselors, more computer programs or other resources that go beyond what schools ordinarily provide. School board members Richard Barrera, Scott Barnett and Shelia Jackson voted last year to shift the money.

Concentrating the money on the schools with the very highest poverty rates has been politically charged, pitting schools against each other on the touchy question of which need the money most.

Schools that stand to lose argue that they desperately need the money to help their poor students, who still have needs even if they go to school with wealthy classmates. Schools that stand to gain argue that San Diego Unified needs to focus its scant resources on the schools with the highest poverty levels.

“This money needs to be concentrated where there’s the highest need,” said Sara Gurling, whose son goes to kindergarten at Cherokee Point Elementary in City Heights, which would gain more money if the funds were shifted. “That’s where it’s supposed to be.”

School board member John Lee Evans, who abstained from the original vote, proposed stopping the change on Tuesday night. He argued the existing system already provides for the greater needs of schools with higher poverty by giving them more money per student. Board member Kevin Beiser, who was absent for the controversial vote last year, argued that struggling families in seemingly better-off neighborhoods like Tierrasanta and Clairemont would lose out.

“We should help more kids in poverty — not less,” Beiser said.

Barnett proved to be the swing vote. He argued that since San Diego Unified has no data on whether the federal money is actually improving student achievement, it made no sense to make a radical change in how it was divvied up.

“I made an uneducated, uninformed, kneejerk decision last year without any data or facts,” Barnett said, pointing out that it was one of his first meetings on the school board.

Evans, Beiser and Barnett all backed the idea of stopping the shift, but voted to delay a decision until the end of the month. Barnett said he still wanted to analyze how San Diego Unified spent the federal money, including dollars not directly sent to schools but instead devoted to central programs such as transportation.

Barrera and Jackson opposed the move. Barrera said it would be disappointing to backtrack on the plan, saying they were stepping away from a decision that would focus the money where it was most needed.

Jackson argued San Diego Unified was diluting the funds by spreading them to schools with lower poverty. She has championed the idea of focusing the money on the poorest schools.

“This flip-flopping back and forth is causing the public to lose confidence in this board,” Jackson said.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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

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