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Students head to class at Lincoln High. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

On Wednesday, I got an email from an enthusiastic reader.

“I appreciate that you uncovered the SDUSD cover-up of the misspent funds at Lincoln High, but your article needs some clarity because it is a much more serious infraction than it sounds from your article (emphasis theirs)” the person wrote. They were referring to an article I wrote about misspending at Lincoln High School.

It’s true: Everyone’s a critic. But we’re a nonprofit newsroom and we answer to the community. So I decided to test this claim. Was the infraction far more serious than my article made clear?

Here’s the central claim of my story: “Lincoln’s School Site Council authorized money to be spent in a certain way. But in the end, school leaders didn’t spend the money how the council members wanted – even though the members have a legally mandated role in approving how certain funds are spent.”

And here’s why the reader believed I fell short: The money that wasn’t spent correctly was federal money, they argued.

Black members of the Lincoln community have said for many years that district officials ignore and belittle them. And the story about misspending showed that in fact district officials ignore them even when they have a legal responsibility to listen and act. So from a moral standpoint, I’m really not convinced that it matters if the money was federal.

But there is one big reason it could matter. Federal education authorities really don’t love it when their money gets misspent. That’s the kind of thing that can trigger investigations and restitution.

Let’s quickly review the authority of a School Site Council. It’s a body made up of an equal number of school workers and administrators, and community members and students. School Site Councils vote on the way certain funds are spent within a school. Generally, these funds have to do with serving disadvantaged students. Some come from the state. And others – called Title I funds – come from the federal government.

The School Site Council “discusses and votes” on these funds, according to one Lincoln document.

In two separate meetings during January and February of 2019, Lincoln’s School Site Council voted to approve $220,000 for math tutoring and math textbooks. District officials admitted those funds were never allocated properly, emails show.

I couldn’t initially tell if any of that $220,000 was Title I money. But then I managed to get a document from 2019 that did in fact prove at least $120,000 of the funds in question were meant to come out of Title I money. Whether that will be of interest to the U.S. Department of Education, I can’t say. It could be of interest to San Diego Unified’s current superintendent, Cindy Marten, who is slated to be the federal department’s next deputy secretary.

Here’s how I figured it out. Minutes from the Feb. 7, 2019, meeting of the Lincoln School Site Council show members voted to spend $120,000 for math tutoring. That money would be used from money that had previously been allocated to a school librarian. In the minutes, it doesn’t say whether that librarian money was Title I money.

But in the new document I obtained, that librarian money is clearly tied to the Title I pot. The document shows all the allocated expenditures for Title I funds, including the struck-out expenses for the librarian.

I’ll give it to the reader. They were right. The money was federal.

Ultimately, this comes down to a question of jurisdiction. And it appears, should federal education officials decide they want to look into the misuse of funds, they would have that authority.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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