By Marsha Sutton
How the San Diego Unified School District funds its schools is a complicated process that La Jolla High School principal Dana Shelburne asserts is far from equitable, saying the better a school performs academically, the fewer dollars the school receives.
“Schools are funded in reverse proportion to their success,” he said. “Why do we not have out of the general dollars a fairly equal distribution?”
He said the per-pupil funding for SDUSD’s high schools ranges from $3,200 to $8,000. “It’s all over the map,” he said.
The board of education, he said, has determined that some schools should receive more funding from the general fund than others and that the board “has full authority to make decisions on how it’s going to fund schools.”
But he called the disparity wrong and said all schools should be funded by the district within $100 of one another.
Furthermore, because successful schools tend to be located in higher socio-economic neighborhoods, there is the perception that those schools are well-financed by private donations to their nonprofit foundations and have an unfair advantage.
La Jolla High, Shelburne said, receives $3,200 per student, making it one of the lowest-funded schools in the district. If the foundation reaches its goal this year of raising $350,000, that amounts to just over $200 per student. Shelburne said $3,400 or $3,500 per pupil is not a lot of money to work with.
“The cost of an average teacher plus benefits is about $90,000,” he said. “You can’t go very far with a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
Federal Title One money is allocated to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, identified as those qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Shelburne said La Jolla High has about 15 percent of these students (about 25 percent of the school’s total population is bused in from outside La Jolla), but that’s not enough to qualify for any Title One money.
“So the kids are here but no money flows,” he said. “When you have another school getting $1.1 million Title One funds, they have a population that has different needs but it doesn’t mean other schools don’t have needs of their own.”
He said he’d “like to see a level playing field” with the general fund dollars and then let the neediest schools with the more challenging populations receive federal money and state categorical funding for special programs.
The $160,000 raised last year from the La Jolla High School Foundation’s Conquer the Cuts campaign, which was held specifically to benefit staffing needs, was allocated at the start of this school year to shift the finance clerk from part-time to full-time, to add another work day for the librarian, and to pay the part-time salary of a teacher for American Sign Language, a new class at the school.
In addition to the $160,000 earmarked for staffing positions, the foundation this year also allocated another $120,000 to classroom and office supplies (86,000), technology ($5,000), textbooks ($10,000) and an athletic trainer ($20,000).
Foundation president Sandy Erickson said about $360,000 was expended last year on technology, textbooks, library books, classroom supplies, equipment, theater, tennis courts, gymnasium upgrades, campus and field maintenance, uniforms, facility fees and athletic coaches.
Without the foundation, programs and courses like World Languages would be lost, said Shelburne. “We could have nothing but Spanish,” he said. “But we prefer to have Latin and French and Spanish and American Sign Language.”
And students taking Visual and Performing Arts might only get one choice, he said, instead of several options that LJHS offers, like choir, band, theater or ceramics.
Maintaining high-quality educational programs is increasingly challenging, Shelburne said, even with generous private contributions.
Ominously, mid-year cuts have become more likely as state income has fallen below expectations. Shelburne said the district may be facing a mid-year loss of $30.5 million.
Some of the school’s programs that cost extra money “are going to be tougher and tougher to logically validate as we find this monetary crunch becoming more and more vicious,” he said.