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Local School Leaders Say Federal Education Aid Not Enough

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Aired 4/30/09

The first town hall meeting on San Diego Unified's budget crisis takes place tonight at Kearny High School. District officials will talk about budget cuts and how federal stimulus money might help. It’s the first in a series of expected meetings that districts around the county will hold.

— The first town hall meeting on San Diego Unified's budget crisis takes place tonight at Kearny High School. District officials will talk about budget cuts and how federal stimulus money might help. It’s the first in a series of expected meetings that districts around the county will hold.

County school districts are poised to get millions of dollars in federal aid. Federal education officials call it a “historic opportunity to transform education.” But local school leaders call it “a drop in the bucket.” KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis has this report.

If California's budget crisis was as a fairy tale, Arne Duncan would be education's knight in shining armor.

Duncan is the new U.S. Secretary of Education. He’s also the gatekeeper of President Obama's $44 billion federal economic stimulus bill for education.

Duncan recently visited San Diego and talked to superintendents and school trustees.

“Collectively, we will save hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs,” Duncan addressed the crowd. “We tittered on the brink of an education catastrophe, if class sizes go from 25 to 40 (students) or 30 to 45. If we lay off counselors, librarians and social workers, we can't get to where we need to go. This money will keep teachers teaching, and keep students learning. And nothing is more important than that.”

California is getting nearly five billion dollars in federal aid. Duncan says individual districts can get millions more if they push for education reform and come up with new and creative programs.

School administrators hung onto every word. Now they face the challenge of making a one-time gift last for more than a couple years.

“The federal dollars are wonderful, they're helpful even it’s one-time. But what I would say is that they're not sufficient,” said Don Phillips, superintendent of the Poway Unified School District.

Poway Unified stands to get a six-million-dollar cash infusion. But Phillips says state budget cuts have basically annihilated school district budgets -- and what's worse -- more cuts are on the horizon.

“We anticipate the recession and impact on school district revenues will fall short two to four years,” Phillips said. “So what we're really trying to do is how do we weather a storm that's more than just a one-year event. And we want to be strategic about using the federal stimulus dollars so that next year we don't spend all the one-time dollars and then face the same kind of crisis next year.”

School district leaders across San Diego County say they're also struggling with how they can sustain new programs or bring back old programs using their limited pot of money. That's why they've been hesitant to introduce any plans based on their district's projections of federal aid.

Diane Russo is the chief financial officer for the Sweetwater Union High School District. That district is poised to get about $10 million in general spending.

“We can't move forward with any initiatives for academic achievement. We can't do anything. All we can do is to make sure everyone has a job,” Russo said.

That's why Russo says going after competitive grants to create new innovative programs is not a priority right now.

Even so, the Obama administration continues to push districts to take on initiatives that would lengthen the school day, create more charter schools and experiment with performance pay for teachers.

But Russo worries those programs could actually set the district back financially.

“Sometimes the state or the federal government thinks its doing a great thing by offering these competitive grants. But in reality, they cost more to implement than they give us,” Russo said. “Plus you don't want to spend too much time on other things that you lose sight of the regular education for kids.”

Many people feel the same way in the San Diego Unified School District. The district stands to get about $43 million in federal aid, the largest single amount in the county.

Michele Janette is a third-grade teacher. She says the federal aid is good, but it also carries some risk.

“These kinds of times do offer opportunities to change things, but I think it has to be something that is well thought out,” Janette said. “So you run the risk of people, just in a quick moment, not really thinking things out.”

Federal money is on the way but its not going to solve everything in fact school district around California are looking to next month's special election because a big slice of state education funding it tied up in a number of ballot measures. If the measures fail, school funding crisis gets much worse.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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