By EMILY ALPERT | VOICE OF SAN DIEFO
Monday, April 6, 2009 | As money from the federal stimulus bill trickles out to schools in San Diego County, districts are being urged to devise new and innovative reforms -- a sticky prospect for schools that have been squarely focused on the dismal business of simply staying intact.
"If the money is used to plug in the holes, then once the money is gone you have the same holes"
— Paula Cordeiro,
dean of USD's education school
Such dollars are "a huge opportunity," said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research group. "But the devil's bargain was that it could only happen at a time when schools were under such duress that their enthusiasm for innovation -- however intense it was to begin with -- is greatly reduced."
San Diego County schools are anxiously awaiting a flood of federal stimulus money to soften the budget cuts that have imperiled programs and sent layoff warnings to hundreds of teachers. But the money is not supposed to be a mere bailout for schools, nor is it large enough to prevent all the planned cuts. Some of the dollars are marked for specific purposes. Some could be held up by the state.
And others will hinge on innovation. Doing something new and exciting now -- and showing that it works -- could give school districts an advantage next fall, when they can compete for grants for groundbreaking reforms. But taking on new programs and initiatives could be tough for schools to stomach that are slashing other programs and staff to battle deep cuts.
San Diego Unified, which is juggling a $147 million shortfall, is beginning to hash out ideas with professors, parents and school principals about how to innovate with the dollars. It expects to get $37 million for disadvantaged students, $28.7 million for special education, and $1 million for technology -- plus whatever the state hands down from stimulus money meant to firm up budgets. Making a splash with those funds could put San Diego Unified in the catbird seat when the federal government asks school districts to compete for $650 million in innovation grants next fall.
"If we use our money wisely and we do something that is innovative and makes a difference for kids, it will give us a step up," said Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris, who said the school board would likely start discussing its plans in the next two or three weeks. "But whatever we do, we have to make sure it's sustainable."
It is batting around ideas ranging from lengthening the school year at its neediest schools to installing more qualified teachers in its preschools. Superintendent Terry Grier met last week with principals and experts to get their ideas on reforms, and has previously touted the idea of a longer school year to prevent poor students from backsliding academically during long summer vacations.
None of the ideas have been vetted by the school board. One of its members, Richard Barrera, said he was loath to see a centralized plan that would impose a single set of reforms on schools without their input, and wanted to focus first on staving off class size increases. Others were still waiting for details.
"I don't even have a clue right now," said Shelia Jackson, president of the San Diego Unified board. "The staff is working hard to give us some ideas. But I haven't even begun to look at it yet."
Many school districts are so nervous about the state budget plummeting further that they are waiting to make plans until they know exactly how much federal money they will get. Officials in Vista, Poway, and Sweetwater Union High School District said they were holding off on ideas about how to spend the stimulus dough.
"We don't want to count on this money until we can see how everything fits together. There is a lot of uncertainty out there," said Sharon Raffer, spokeswoman for Poway Unified School District. She added, "You read that people would like you to do creative things. But we want to make sure that we can provide the best possible basic education for our kids."
California is supposed to get an estimated $8 billion in extra federal money for its schools this and next school year from a battery of funds that make up the education stimulus. But the money is only a temporary blessing. Educators say the key is to ensure that the onetime boost in money makes a lasting impact, instead of temporarily patching over budget woes. That could be a frustrating paradox as strapped schools get millions in temporary funding.
"If the money is used to plug in the holes," said Paula Cordeiro, dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego, "then once the money is gone you have the same holes."
That makes school districts anxious about using the money to reinstate staff, even though they are eager to avert the layoffs that are threatened across the state, and even though the money is meant to help create and preserve jobs. More than 27,000 teachers were warned last month that their jobs might be cut, according to the California Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, and San Diego Unified was one of the few school districts to avoid issuing any such warnings.
"We need ways to fund those salaries indefinitely," said Dianne Russo, chief financial officer for Sweetwater Union High School District. "It feels like, 'Thanks for giving us money -- but what do we do next year when the money is gone and we can't pay our teachers again?'"
The stimulus funding comes in several different chunks, delivered at different times, with different aims, and with different rules.
More than $1 billion will begin flowing this spring to special education and to programs that serve students from poor families in California. The state will get another $1 billion in September if it shows the federal government it used the money effectively to spare and create jobs and to boost student achievement. It is supposed to help teachers become better at their jobs; beef up systems that track how students perform; make sure that qualified teachers are scattered fairly among schools in all areas; raise standards; and focus squarely on the worst schools.
How strictly the government will police those guidelines is an open question among scholars and policymakers.
Another pot of stimulus money, meant to stabilize state budgets, is estimated to pour more than $3 billion into California schools. That money holds the most promise for districts struggling to avert layoffs because it has few strings attached. But school districts are grappling with the state over how quickly the money will be sent to districts and how it will be divvied up.
Board members from San Diego Unified have lobbied lawmakers in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C. to push for California to use the stimulus dollars to refill the budgets the same way they were cut.
That would benefit school districts in urban areas in California, which took a deeper hit in the budget crisis when the state slashed money from funds earmarked for English learners and disadvantaged students, who are more populous in districts such as San Diego Unified. The change could mean an extra $20 million or more for San Diego Unified. They also prodded lawmakers to hand over the money, instead of holding onto some of it as the state legislative analyst recommended earlier this year.