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As heat spiked over the last couple months, some San Diego classrooms neared 100 degrees. Parents took photos of thermometers and contacted news outlets. One parent said she was pulling her kids from school until it cooled off. Another said she wouldn’t subject her dog to the conditions in kids’ classrooms.

Have patience, the district said, a plan to air-condition more schools is in progress.

But parents at Bird Rock Elementary in La Jolla didn’t wait. They paid for it themselves.

Now, all Bird Rock classrooms have new, high-capacity air conditioning units either installed or on the way, according to a flier sent to parents. And why stop there?

“Now that we have air, we have big plans for SHADE. Shade in the lunch arbor. Shade over the blacktop play structure. Shade between the bungalows. And TREES. Why not?”

All this is made possible by Bird Rock’s robust school foundation, a nonprofit that raised more than $150,000 in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, according to its tax records. That’s money that will stay in the school and directly benefit Bird Rock students.

Mike McQuary, a San Diego Unified trustee who represents schools in La Jolla, said Bird Rock parents approached the district to ask if they could foot the bill for air conditioners. District officials said that was fine, so long as they filled out paperwork and made sure the equipment they planned to install was up to standards before officials signed off on it, McQuary said.

“I don’t think we should let some kids suffer because we can’t roll out A/C across the district,” McQuary said.

Parents at other schools can do the same thing, he said.

But not every school has a foundation, and few of those that do have the cash to have air-conditioning units installed immediately.

It’s an issue that has come up before, and one that Bill Ponder, who serves on district’s bond oversight committee, said raises a broader concern.

“This gets into a much deeper issue, a troubling question about how the school board is creating disparities between students,” Ponder said.

About seven years ago, when schools across the district had to slash budgets and say goodbye to teachers, school foundations in La Jolla were able to raise enough private funds to keep hold of their staff.

Schools foundations are meant to pay for extras at school, like playground equipment, but over the years, private funding evolved into a kind of budget staple.

San Diego Unified officials talk incessantly about equity, but they’ve always taken a hands-off approach when it comes to foundations. In fact, school board member John Lee Evans said we need to encourage more parents and community members to support foundations.

McQuary agrees.

“The sad part is we’ve got to do it this way,” he said. “We need reach out to community providers until the state can provide the basic services that our schools need.”

But San Diegans have already agreed to tax hikes that could help solve this problem. Construction bonds have paid for air conditioning in some of the district’s hottest classrooms, but under the current plan, schools near the coast aren’t scheduled for A/C. And there have been other priorities for some of that money, like new athletic facilities.

Ponder said later this week district officials will meet to discuss expanding that plan to include more schools.

Those who support foundations, including McQuary, point out that schools in low-income neighborhood get additional state and federal funding to support their students.

But those funds are tied to specific programs. Schools face a lot fewer restrictions on how they spend foundation dollars. Then there are schools in middle-class areas, which don’t get much foundation money or federal funding for low-income students.

The biggest question – one that’s difficult to answer – is whether foundations worsen the already existing disparities between the haves and have-nots.

McQuary said they don’t. Sort of.

“I wouldn’t say they worsen the inequity. I’d say it highlights the need to provide equity,” he 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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