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Baskets of books sit on shelfs in a Perkins Elementary School classroom back in September 2017. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In California, teachers spend an average of $664 each year to provide supplies for their classrooms, according to one study 

It might come as an unpleasant surprise to those educators that San Diego Unified schools left more than $4 million on the table last year that could have gone to supplies and more, according to a document obtained by Voice of San Diego.   

The unspent funds were classified as Title I money, which comes from the federal government and is used to help schools with higher concentrations of poverty. The money often goes to critical positions like school counselors or after-school tutors. It can also go to supplies. 

“$4 million? That’s really bad – really bad,” said Suzy Reid, a parent who formerly sat on the District Advisory Council, a committee that helps direct the way Title I money is spent.  

Lincoln High – a school where community members have frequently called for more resources – left the most money on the table last year. The school failed to use $273,565 it received from the federal government.  

The money doesn’t exactly disappear when schools don’t spend it, but schools completely lose autonomy over how it’s used. When funds don’t get spent by a school, they typically go back into the districtwide Title I fund. That means the superintendent and Board of Education have control over how the money is used. The money gets spread out, in other words, rather than going to the intended school.  

It still must be used to help Title I students and fund Title I programs, said district spokeswoman Maureen Magee.  

It is ultimately the responsibility of a school’s principal and administration when that school doesn’t spend its money, said Reid.  

Every school has a School Site Council, a committee made up of parents, students and school employees. School Site Councils get to vote on how Title I money is spent. And each year, they vote to allocate all of the money, said Reid.  

In other words, schools must have a spending plan in place for all of their Title I money.  

Principals are then supposed to spend that money exactly as the School Site Council voted it should be spent. If lots of money is leftover that means a principal didn’t spend the money as it was intended. In some cases, a spending plan might get thrown off by an early retirement or something else outside a principal’s control. In other cases, the School Site Council’s spending plan simply wasn’t followed.  

District officials decided to direct even more Title I money down to the most high-needs schools several years ago, Reid said. She said the biggest concern was that it would be too much money to manage at the school level.  

But it’s clear some schools are able to manage the extra cash. Knox Middle, like Lincoln High, is considered a very high-needs school and gets lots of supplemental funding. But last year, it only left $3,178 unspent – compared to Lincoln’s $273,565.  

You can view a database of all unspent Title I money here 

A massive fight over the allocation of Title I funds at Lincoln in recent years got so ugly that school officials stopped coming to community meetings 

It appears the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected school’s Title I spending. The amount of unspent money exploded in 2019-20 to roughly $3 million and grew even higher in 2020-21, according to the document, which shows spending over the last five years.  

Unspent Title I money hovered around $1 million per year in the preceding years.  

On the one hand, schools weren’t on campus during the pandemic year, which might have made it harder to spend their money. On the other, students were more in need than ever. School officials across the state warned students were falling behind in their learning and needed more mental health resources. They pleaded for more money.  

Parents ultimately have a legal oversight role in how Title I money is spent – and can demand better from their principals. Reid has gone to several district schools to help train parents on how School Site Councils work.  

At many of the highest-needs schools, parents don’t understand the power they can wield through their School Site Councils, said Reid, who has done many trainings for parents across the district. Families have a legal oversight role in how Title I money is spent – and principals are supposed to follow their directions to the letter. 

“It’s important for parents to understand the power they have,” said Reid. 

Will Huntsberry

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

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