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School trustees question foundation funding

BY TONY DE GARATE

Contributor

With city school officials still struggling to close a $63 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins next month, who in their right mind would turn down grass-roots contributions to improve education for local kids?”

That’s what parents with children from La Jolla-area schools and elsewhere wanted to know when the San Diego Unified School District Board of Trustees held a discussion June 16 on how to clarify - and possibly limit - the role of private foundations that raise millions of dollars citywide.

Locally, foundations allow parents to donate cash that restores cuts and provides extra programs and personnel at La Jolla, Bird Rock and Torrey Pines elementary schools, Muirlands Middle School, and La Jolla High School.

At La Jolla Elementary, for example, foundation money pays for a technology specialist and laptops, part-time art and music teachers, a full-time librarian, and an “over-formula” teacher to reduce class size, foundation president Haleh Bolour said.

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La Jolla High’s foundation came to the rescue last fall with its Save Our Teachers campaign, raising enough money to save four teachers and a part-time library technician.

Praise, but questions

Trustees, battle-weary from an ongoing struggle to fill the financial hole, were quick to lavish praise for foundation efforts and eventually voted 5-0 to develop policies in their support. But in the days leading up to the meeting, an e-mail campaign warned of “devastating” changes on the horizon that could hinder the way foundations contribute money.

District officials say they’ve been concerned about potential liability if foundation money would be used, in effect, to replace union-represented district positions with employees outside a collective bargaining agreement.

“We have the money; can we use it (to hire) employees?” Superintendent Terry Grier said during last week’s meeting. “We cannot find a policy on this issue.”

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He said the practice was questioned at a recent meeting of the district’s Audit and Finance Committee.

Personnel the issue

John de Beck, trustee for District C which includes La Jolla, said foundations caused no legal pitfalls when they first began decades ago, funding capital improvements, supplies and the like.

“As soon as they crossed into personnel, there were all kinds of problems,” he added.

One reason, de Beck said, was the assumption by foundations that they could directly control the money they donated.

Alison Lee of the Muirlands Middle School Foundation disagreed.

“We fund positions, not people,” Lee said. “Our administration has never let us think we could pay for an individual person and have control over that person.”

“You have an enlightened administration,” de Beck said.

David Wolf, parent of a Torrey Pines Elementary fourth-grader, said he could empathize with schools that don’t have means to fund foundations as amply as La Jolla.

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“On the other hand, restricting funding leaves money on the table (and) hurts kids who lose the programs,” he said.

Start the process

Wolf called on the board to begin a process to resolve the legal issues.

In the end, that’s what it did. The approved resolution directed staff to develop policies to allow foundation-funded personnel and define the responsibilities of the foundations. Trustee John Lee Evans also suggested forming a committee of interested parties.

“Those details can be looked at and very calmly worked out,” Evans said. “This is democracy in action. People are standing up and saying, ‘We want our schools improved and we’re not going to wait for things to happen.’ ”

A committee could be formed in the fall and report back to the board next spring, district spokesman Jack Brandais said.