Poway Unified is highlighting broken rain gutters at Rancho Bernardo High in its bid for a new $448 million bond measure in March 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Statement: “Our school district, Poway Unified, many people may not realize, that we are the lowest funded unified school district in San Diego County. That if we received per pupil funding the same as San Diego Unified, the difference is $1,500 per child per year. That’s a difference of $55 million per year that we do not get that other school districts do get,” said Poway Unified Superintendent Marian Kim Phelps at a Nov. 14 board meeting before the school board voted to place a new multimillion-dollar facilities bond on the ballot.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: While pitching to voters a new $448 million school bond measure on the March 2020 ballot, Poway Unified School District officials have decried a lack of state funding for facilities maintenance and called on local residents to help fill the gap to ensure schools don’t fall into further disrepair.

District leaders have also called out broader state funding trends, arguing Poway Unified gets less per pupil than other K-12 districts in the region.

Even though bond funds can’t be used to pay for teacher salaries or programs, the bond “could free up money in our general fund that would otherwise be going to facilities needs. That extra general fund money could then go toward funding priority programs and positions,” a bond FAQ page says.

Before the school board voted in November to place the bond on the ballot, Poway Superintendent Marian Kim Phelps zeroed in on San Diego Unified’s state funding. Poway gets $1,500 less per student per year for a total of $55 million less annually, she said.

A bond information presentation also shows Poway’s state money from the Local Control Funding Formula totals $9,112 per student, less than unified districts in Carlsbad, San Marcos, Ramona, Oceanside, Vista and San Diego, the latter of which gets the most at $10,610 per student.

“People have to remember we are one of the lowest funded unified districts. … We don’t qualify for the other pots of money that others do,” Phelps said.

A look at standardized end-of-year financial documents for Poway and San Diego Unified does show a discrepancy of about $1,500 per student in 2018-19.

What Phelps and officials didn’t mention, though, was that the state’s Local Control Funding Formula sends extra state money to districts with higher populations of English-learners, foster youth and students from low-income families with the aim to better serve those higher-need students and close the achievement gap.

San Diego Unified has much higher populations of those groups, so it gets more funding. Some 61.52 percent of San Diego Unified’s students were flagged for extra state aid compared with 23.39 percent at Poway in 2018-19, state records show.

That translated into $127.8 million extra via supplemental and concentration grants for San Diego Unified, which serves a total of almost 98,000 kids. Whereas Poway received $13.75 million in special grants and serves about 35,284 kids total. On a per pupil basis, that works out to $1,294 for San Diego and almost $390 for Poway – for a $900 difference.

But even though the state sends local districts extra money to better serve high-need populations, it is up to local districts to actually do so. And tracking how the money is actually spent can be a herculean task.

A lack of accountability surrounding the formula system has been the subject of concern for residents up and down the state, several which have sued districts like Long Beach and Los Angeles and extracted settlements requiring more specific supports for kids be added.

San Diego Unified was specifically called out by the California state auditor in November for spending millions of dollars in supplemental and concentration grants on base services, including $5.2 million on libraries.

Now, San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber is pitching new laws to make the grant spending more transparent and targeted. Weber’s bills introduced this year would require districts to report to the state how they’re using the extra funds meant for vulnerable students and would also require districts to identify unspent funds every year and continue reserving those funds solely for the vulnerable groups.

Highlighting the fact Poway receives less state funding per pupil than other K-12 districts during a bond pitch, without explaining why, is misleading. But for now, districts can spend the grant money on facilities even though it’s meant to specifically benefit vulnerable youth.

Because the facts stated are true – Poway does get less to the tune of $900 to $1,500 per kid annually – Voice of San Diego finds Phelps’ claim to be mostly true. The statement is accurate but there is an important nuance to consider.

“It is a fair argument because we still service children. We have to run the same class sizes and relatively the same amount of programs and want the same positive experience,” Phelps told Voice of San Diego. “It all costs the same amount of money.”

But Phelps also acknowledged Poway receives less largely because the district serves fewer vulnerable kids.

“As far as those same pockets of students and having greater needs, yeah, we can’t argue that, but we still have to run a district. … We all have buildings and facilities that have aging needs.” The district’s general fund is “the only pot we can reach into” for facilities, and “we have less money floating in there to address those needs,” she said.

In the past, the district has also turned to Mello Roos funds for facilities and built 14 schools with separate taxes collected from homeowners in newer developments. But Poway’s Mello Roos taxes cannot be used on repair, maintenance or school improvement projects because those special tax districts were formed before state law changed to allow spending on maintenance, according to the district’s bond FAQ webpage.

Private school foundations have also helped prop up Poway’s schools in the past, though some are more robust than others and often kick in funds for school supplies, new technology, school programs like music or robotics or even teacher, counselor and staff salaries, rather than facility repairs.

For instance, the Painted Rock Elementary School Foundation lists in-class tech devices, music classes and a P.E. teacher among its funding priorities on its website and says, “To provide the extra services and programs that go unfunded by the school district, our Foundation must raise more than $160,000 this year.”

Another foundation supporting Willow Grove Elementary put out a catchy “Fund the Gap” music video last year seeking to raise funds for teachers and programs, professional development, technology and other school supplies.

Poway’s new bond, Measure P, is the first put before voters since 2008 and comes nine years after the district’s infamous 2011 capital appreciation bond deal, which sparked statewide school bond finance reforms.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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