By Yvette tenBerge
It is the job of public schools across California to provide students with a curriculum that prepares them to take tough, state mandated tests and enough extracurricular activities and electives to entice those who are at risk of dropping out, into staying the course.
In light of the state’s proposed $24 billion deficit, many parents, teachers and community members within the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) are questioning the district’s spending priorities.
With flashy new additions such as Blurb magazine, a glossy, district-wide publication that showcases student writing, and building additions such as the large, athletic center at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, which comes complete with weight, dance and wrestling rooms, some area residents and teachers are wondering why necessities such as school supplies and plans to build much-needed classrooms and bathrooms, seem to have fallen to the wayside.
Mary Anne Weegar, a director of categorical programs for the SUHSD in the 1990s, recently won a wrongful termination lawsuit against the district and a settlement of $678,000 based on a claim that the district forced her to retire after she accused them of spending improprieties.
Ms. Weegar’s responsibilities with the district included the oversight of federal and state funded programs that operate under strict rules on how to serve particular populations of students, such as English language learners, underachievers and low-income students.
“Often times the categorical budget was perceived as a cookie jar, and money was used to pay for things that were not data-based. I do not argue that extracurricular activities are important,” says Ms. Weegar, who wonders why more money isn’t funneled into programs that have been proven to enhance academics. “But, I believe that putting money behind improving student achievement is what will keep kids in school.”
Lillian Leopold is the Grants and Communications Manger for the SUHSD. She confirms the school board’s recent adoption of a roughly $270 million budget for the 2002-2003 school year, and explains that the district is not free to use all funds in the same manner.
“Money for facilities comes from different pots than money for extra curricular activities,” says Ms. Leopold, who states that funds from district contracts with corporations such as Jostens, Inc., a company that agreed to pay the district $50,000 upfront in exchange for an exclusive cap and gown deal, and Pepsi, which forked over $1 million as part of its contract, are used to keep the district’s extracurricular activities up and running.
“The vending machine money [from the Pepsi deal] is allocated for ninth grade athletics and other extracurricular programs,” says Ms. Leopold, who explains that this group of 14 and 15-year-old students is most at risk of dropping out of school or getting into trouble. “The district looks for ways to keep these kids connected to school.”
A recent Union-Tribune editorial addresses the district’s intention to censure Jauhn Hinkle, Sweetwater High School’s assistant principal, for blowing the whistle on “questional vendor contracts.” It focuses on one contract that “added about $50 to the price of senior class rings” in exchange for an “upfront donation” by the vendor - Jostens, Inc.
A May 16 Union-Tribune article states that Sweetwater “gave $40,000” to Michael Inzunza, the Editor and Chief of Blurb magazine “last year to get the project rolling,” and noted that the rest of the cost of publishing, “$6,600 per issue for printing alone,” was contributed by several sponsors.
Although some balked at the district’s decision to fund Blurb in light of its ever-tightening budget, Ms. Leopold states that the funds used to start Blurb were taken from a “pot” designated for extracurricular activities. If the district had not used the money to start Blurb, they would have used it to fund a similar program.
“Michael’s salary [$40,000] is funded through our adult education program. He is an employee of the district,” says Ms. Leopold, who states that another $25,000, which was taken from money from the Jostens, Inc. contract, went to pay for computers and other equipment necessary to run the publication, as well as to pay the salary of two, part-time employees. “Michael has already raised an additional $38,000 from advertising, so this coming year the magazine will be self-sustaining.”
All advertising money raised is funneled through the district, and extra funds will be pumped back into the publication. The monthly magazine put out its first issue in May and was distributed to students and faculty throughout the district. The publication has a circulation of 30,000.
Mr. Inzunza’s enthusiasm at being given the chance to provide a vehicle for students is obvious. “Nobody has made a gallant effort to celebrate the culture of students or their accomplishments,” says Mr. Inzunza, who will instruct student writers to cover issues such as adolescent health care, scholarship and job opportunities and academics. “Peer oriented communication is the best way to inform kids; they need to hear from
Dianne Russo is the Director of Finance for the SUHSD. She states that the district’s spending priorities are decided by the school board and by the district’s budget development committee, a group of administrators, teachers, parents and community members whose job it is to pare down the budget and rank programs in order of importance. Their recommendations are handed down to, and voted on by, the school board.
“Ninety percent of the budget goes to paying salaries and benefits, and the rest of it is part of a small, discretionary budget for specific school sites and departments,” says Ms. Russo. “You often have 100 things you’d like to fund, but you can only afford to fund 50.”
Gloria Jouan is a parent who has been involved with the district for over 20 years. She is a member of the SUHSD budget development committee, and estimates that the group of between 15 and 20 people spent two or three months mapping out a list of recommended spending priorities for the district.
“We made a list of Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 priorities. There is never a question that our core curriculum is always our first priority,” says Ms. Jouan, who also states that textbooks and additions to the new San Ysidro high school were also Tier 1 priorities. “It is heart wrenching to make some of these decisions.”
Ms. Jouan confirms that the committee does not make decisions on the funding of extracurricular programs, such as Blurb magazine, since it is under the Adult Education program and otherwise funded by corporate monies.
Proposition BB is a $187 million bond measure that was passed in November 2000 to fund critical repairs at 20 dilapidated district schools. According to the SUHSD Facilities Improvement Plan, which was circulated to voters in July 2000, the 30 to 60-year-old facilities had “outdated electrical and plumbing systems, broken sewage and drainage pipes, inadequate ventilation” and heating and classroom spaces “poorly configured for increasing enrollment and modern curricula.”
Paul Gage, who requested that his name be changed for fear of retribution, has taught at Mar Vista High for almost a decade. Within the past few years, the student population has skyrocketed from 1,200 to more than 2,300 students, and the shortage of classrooms has reached a critical level.
“When Prop BB came around, I thought it would be our savior. Mar Vista is seriously overcrowded, and they said they were going to build new classrooms and new bathrooms. I was really shocked when they built this monstrosity of a gym,” says Mr. Gage, who volunteered his time at a phone bank to help get the bond passed. “It’s a serious misuse of funds, and I just boil over every time I see it.”
When asked to describe the atmosphere at Mar Vista, Mr. Gage paints a picture of the “traveling teacher.” “Basically, because of the overcrowding, these teachers don’t have rooms. They have to use other teacher’s classrooms, and they carry around their things in baskets like homeless people. They have a different room every hour,” says Mr. Gage, who teaches out of a portable classroom with a rain leak that has yet to be fixed, and an air conditioner with sealed off controls so that it “runs 24-7”. “If a teacher can’t teach effectively because they don’t have a room, students can’t learn.”
Mar Vista was built in 1951 and has the capacity to serve 1,215 students. Under the list of “specific repair, renovation and overcrowding needs” to be addressed at a proposed cost of $12,676,198 are such things as: modernizing classrooms, adding science classroom space and a computer lab, adding student and faculty restrooms and renovating existing classrooms. Modernizing “physical education facilities including boys’ and girls’ locker/restroom” is listed second to last.
Dr. Louise Phipps, the principal at Mar Vista High, confirms the district’s claim that the decision as to what repairs “come first” under Prop BB was not made by the district.
“There was a broad-based committee that was put together at all schools. Ours made the decision to build an athletic complex,” says Dr. Phipps, who states that the complex consists of weight, dance and wrestling rooms, as well as two classrooms and a large gym capable of fitting the school’s swelling population. “A few years ago we didn’t have a place where our students could get together, but this complex will allow us to enter into a more meaningful relationship with the community and the city.”
She confirms the validity of Mr. Gage’s assessment. “We need bathrooms and classrooms. I used to ask the students if they knew what ‘Prop BB’ stood for, and they would say ‘Prop Better Bathrooms,’” says Dr. Phipps, whose students and faculty often have to stand in line to use broken-down bathroom facilities. “But we are already involved in planning the second phase of Prop BB, which will result in science labs, refurbished classrooms and new bathrooms.”
Rafael Muñoz, Assistant Director of Planning for the SUHSD, did not return La Prensa San Diego’s calls about the cost of Mar Vista’s athletic complex or the start date for phase II of Prop BB.
Whether the hands of the district’s board members and administrators are tied when it comes to utilizing money earmarked for extras for basics such as supplies or textbooks, or whether local school-based committees choose to build a super-gymnasium before installing bathrooms and classrooms, the question from concerned employees, parents and community members remains: In a time of financial uncertainty and academic accountability, who is going to stand up to visibly make academic gains and critical building repairs a priority?