By Marsha Sutton
Jan. 19 was the deadline for states to apply for federal education money from a U.S. Department of Education program called Race to the Top (RTTT). But in order to be considered, states first had to ensure that their laws are consistent with RTTT requirements.
The scrambling to meet the qualifications to apply for this pot of relatively limited federal education money had the state of California, its lawmakers, the California Department of Education and all the state's 1,000 school districts in a panic the past few months.
In the end, laws were hurriedly passed that aligned California's goals with controversial federal objectives, and school districts were then called upon to sign on in support. But many districts were wondering, "In support of what?"
The accelerated manner with which districts were asked to endorse the effort made many uneasy. And commitments the state would require of districts, in exchange for the money, were fuzzy at best.
"They said initially, 'Just trust us,'" said Leslie Fausset, superintendent of the kindergarten through sixth-grade Solana Beach School District.
Fausset, whose district did not sign the state's Memorandum of Understanding, said the agreement read like a blank sheet. Solana Beach was hardly alone.
Signing the MOU to agree to the state's conditions for the federal Race to the Top money were only 14 of the county's 42 school districts.
Those 14 are: Bonsall, Cardiff, Chula Vista, Coronado, Del Mar, Encinitas, Mountain Empire, National, Ramona, Rancho Santa Fe, San Marcos, San Ysidro, Sweetwater and Vista.
Missing from the list are some heavy hitters, the biggest being San Diego Unified. But also not signing were: Cajon Valley, Carlsbad, Escondido, Grossmont, La Mesa-Spring Valley, Oceanside, Poway, San Dieguito, South Bay and 18 others.
"Districts were asked to sign an MOU with no information about the commitment that we might have to do to qualify for the money," said Bernie Rhinerson, chief district relations officer for the San Diego Unified School District.
"The state doesn't have a plan done, so we weren't able to analyze what the implication or commitments or costs might be," he said. "There was a total lack of information. So all of that taken together, the district decided not to sign the MOU."
In addition, Rhinerson said the process was too rushed and was poorly timed, with decisions needing to be made over the December holidays. "The deadline was the eighth [of January], and there was still no information," he said.
Rhinerson said the school board held a brief discussion of the issue before the holidays at a budget workshop. "There was never a vote," he said. "So it really was the superintendent's decision, but certainly the board was in agreement with it."
The amount of RTTT money that California might qualify for, if its application is approved, would be $350 million to $700 million.
Of that, Rhinerson estimated that only a tiny portion might find its way to San Diego Unified, which has been struggling with debilitating financial shortages and has been straining to find ways to cut tens of millions of dollars in expenses.