Sweetwater Union High School faculty rally against a district proposal to lay off more than 200 employees and shut down learning centers dedicated to struggling students. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Several studies in recent years have shown that increasing cashflow to schools increases academic outcomes – especially for poorer students.

If true, that’s good news. Because the children of San Diego and California are, in theory, about to be the beneficiaries of a spending bonanza.

Between increases in state and federal education funding related to the pandemic, California schools will get an extra $35 billion in cash, according to EdSource.

Despite those reassuring studies on spending, several education advocacy organizations are calling for more transparency, accountability and stakeholder engagement in how school districts spend this historic investment.

The groups conducted an analysis of pandemic spending plans so far and found (can you believe it!?) “omissions of important information that districts were required to report.”

“We cannot repeat past mistakes from 2020-21, when districts did not publicly account for billions of dollars in federal and state pandemic relief funds. This left stakeholders, who under the law must be partners in planning, in the dark about how these funds were spent,” said Erin Apte, legislative counsel for Public Advocates, one of the groups that conducted the analysis, in a press release.

The groups Children Now, the National Center for Youth Law and Californians Together also helped conduct the analysis. They reviewed the spending plans of 48 different districts across the state, including the San Diego County Office of Education and San Ysidro Elementary School District, locally.

“Most of the plans the authors reviewed did a poor job of clearly showing how [school districts] invested the more than $8 billion in pandemic relief they received,” according to the report.

Now as many more billions of dollars make their way into district coffers, there’s little reason to think officials will finally start clearly telling the public where they’re spending its money.

Voice of San Diego’s Ashly McGlone had to spend months figuring out how San Diego County schools were spending in the pandemic. She found the majority of funds were spent on existing employees.

Kayla Jimenez set out to write a story detailing how San Marcos Unified was the only district in the county that spent significant money on crisis counseling. But in the end, she found out the money had been spent on existing counselors.

Even before the pandemic, school districts were terrible about reporting how they spent their money. A state audit confirmed that in many cases school districts spent funds dedicated to vulnerable students in places they shouldn’t have.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber wrote a bill when she was in the Legislature to provide more accountability around funding, but it died.

According to the analysis by the four advocacy groups, the children most often left out of spending plans were the most vulnerable: English-learners, homeless students and those in the juvenile justice system.

But the report also highlighted some positive instances of transparency and smart spending.

San Ysidro created detailed plans to reach out to foster students. The San Diego County Office of Education reassigned paraeducators to new pandemic-related duties and conducted professional development that addressed mental health and trauma.

The report suggested that state officials ramp up requirements for districts to show exactly how they’re spending money and which funding source they’re spending from.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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