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Some San Diego Unified schools are letting their fundraising groups run their official school websites, and even allowing businesses to advertise on their sites.

The San Diego County Civil Grand Jury says that’s a problem – one that contradicts the district’s own social media guidelines that state school websites and fundraising groups have to be clearly separated. Schools can post a link to a foundation or PTA, but that’s it. 

Letting foundations run websites means the district doesn’t have means to approve what information goes out. It also means that the first thing parents see when they visit their child’s school website is a request for money.

Here’s what that looks like on the websites for Jerabek Elementary and La Jolla Elementary:

School foundations are nonprofits groups, usually driven by parents who donate to help pay for staff, programs or supplies at their children’s school.

They were originally meant to help schools pay for extras, like field trips, but increasingly became a budget staple after the recession hacked away at school finances. In 2011, foundations and other fundraising groups brought at least $6.5 million to San Diego Unified Schools.

The Grand Jury, a group of ordinary county residents that looks at government agencies each year, doesn’t have authority to enforce its findings, but it makes recommendations that government agencies are typically compelled to respond to.

Here are a few other issues it mentions in its report.

San Diego Unified provides all schools with a content management system, free of charge. Schools don’t have to use this to run their websites, but they’re strongly encouraged to do so.

Some schools pay an outside business to run their websites for them – in one case, comingling foundation cash with $2,100 in Associated Student Body money that’s meant just for students, according to the report.

A district spokesman said he doesn’t know exactly why 20 to 30 schools are opting out of the free service, but guessed that some sites like to have the flexibility to customize their pages.

The private money puts San Diego Unified in an awkward situation. The district doesn’t want to discourage parents from giving to their schools, but foundations are also thumbing their noses at some of the rules the district’s laid out.

The Grand Jury report points out that some companies that advertise on school websites are even soliciting personal information from students and parents.

A spokesperson for the district said they’ve received Grand Jury report, and will look into the findings before it decides whether it will make changes.

The district’s citizen whistleblower, Sally Smith, said foundations shouldn’t be running the show.

“It’s absolutely inappropriate for schools to use children as means to advertise and raise money. Public schools and businesses are kept separate for a reason, and the district should not be looking the other way on this,” Smith said.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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