Monday, June 8, 2009 | While schools froze their spending to survive a bruising budget crisis, San Diego Unified spent more than $2,000 in federal money for disadvantaged students to send Superintendent Terry Grier to a conference in Washington, D.C., including more than $550 for meals for Grier and other school district staff and trustees.
Staffers said the costs were reasonable and credited the March conference and lobbying with helping to steer stimulus money to San Diego schools. But Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris, who approved the spending, now says charging the federal fund for the expenses was inappropriate and vowed to correct it when it was brought to his attention by voiceofsandiego.org late last week. Using the money to pay for Grier may have also violated federal rules that bar the funds from being used for lobbying.
"I screwed it up. I shouldn't have done that," Morris said. He had believed that the whole conference was related to the federal money for disadvantaged students, he said, and was therefore an allowable expense for Grier. The money will now be charged to the Office of the Superintendent.
The erroneous costs included dinner at a Georgetown restaurant, where Grier picked up the tab for himself and other school district staffers and trustees. The dinners ran more than $57 per person and included two plates of venison ($29 per entree), two orders of striped bass ($28 each) and two orders of a gourmet beef called wagyu ($32 each), according to expense reports and receipts obtained by voiceofsandiego.org through a California Public Records Act request.
Elsewhere during the conference, Grier ordered up a $23 order of barbecue ribs for himself, spent nearly $50 for a late dinner of soup, fish and cake, and bought $84.16 worth of breakfast for himself, two school board members and the San Diego Unified spokesman from a hotel restaurant at the same time that the conference provided a free continental breakfast on its first floor. The superintendent said he could not recall why he did not attend the free breakfast.
Grier, who said he was not aware of the "mix-up" that resulted in the federal money being used for his costs, argued that the expenses were reasonable for dining in the capital and that he had not "gouged anyone." School district spokesman Bernie Rhinerson said that Grier and other officials gained valuable networking along with their meals with school district officials from across the country.
"When you're at a conference like this and you're with people from all over, you go to a restaurant with groups of professionals," said Rhinerson, who attended the conference. "You don't go across the street to McDonald's."
The superintendent's contract, which originally included a $30 limit per person per meal for reimbursable meals, was amended last October to allow him to charge San Diego Unified for "reasonable out-of-pocket costs" and now lists no specific dollar limit. Grier, who earns $269,000 annually plus a $10,000 car allowance, said that the limit was lifted for practical reasons.
"Have you ever tried to eat on $25?" Grier asked a reporter. "I promise you it is very difficult to do."
The federal money spent on the meals and other expenses is meant to boost the achievement of economically disadvantaged children. It is called Title 1. State law allows school districts to spend up to 15 percent of the money to administer programs, instead of spending it all directly on schools, but the rules are complex and often debated.
San Diego Unified set aside $4.15 million for administering the programs this year. It has gotten into hot water with the federal government over misspending the federal money in the past, when it charged the funds for some of the costs of its last golden handshake for employees, and ultimately had to repay nearly $700,000.
State officials and experts consulted by voiceofsandiego.org said the conference costs and other forms of training could be charged to Title 1 if they were directly related to the federal programs for disadvantaged youth.
"If they can argue that attendance at this meeting helped Title 1, they could certainly argue that," said Fred Balcom, director of the accountability and improvement division at the California Department of Education. "We wouldn't recommend that because we think there are better uses."
The conference was the annual legislative and policy meeting for the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban school districts that advocates for urban schools through legislation and research. Grier sits on its executive board. Its agenda included a speech by federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and sessions on No Child Left Behind and the stimulus bill, which includes ample added funding for Title 1.
Grier and school board members also lobbied legislators while in the capital.
That lobbying may also pose problems under federal law if Title 1 money helped pay the costs. California Department of Education officials said school districts are barred from using Title 1 funding for lobbying, as San Diego Unified did in this instance through Grier's expenses. Maria Reyes, who oversees some of the federal programs at the California Department of Education, said the mistake could be fixed by reimbursing the Title 1 funds used to pay for Grier to attend the events.
The spending happened after San Diego Unified had clamped down on costs at schools and in the central office. A freeze forced schools and departments to bring all expenses to the superintendent and other top school district officials for approval. Cutting back helped San Diego Unified spend millions less than it had estimated it would spend this year, one factor that helped whittle down the school district deficit from $180 million to $106 million. Marion Snell, a teacher librarian at Kimbrough Elementary, said the sum that Grier spent on food could have paid for roughly 27 library books at her school.
The money spent on meals galled David Page, the parent who oversees a school district committee on Title 1 and other funding for disadvantaged students. He said he was recently denied $600 to pay for food for 100 people at an awards ceremony for schools with high achievement and high poverty — a bill that would average $6 per person — and ended up seeking donations to pay for the event. The meals paid for out of Title 1 funds would nearly cover the costs of food at his ceremony, he said.
"Off the backs of student programs he goes and does this!" Page said.
Grier was not the only San Diego Unified staffer to attend the conference: Title 1 also paid the way for Brenda Campbell, executive director of its Federal and Special Programs Division, who attended sessions on stimulus funding for disadvantaged students at a roughly $2,400 cost. Rhinerson said that Campbell was not involved in lobbying during the conference. Numerous experts said it was acceptable to charge the funds for her training because she directly oversees the federal funds and attended meetings on the topic.
Title 1 money was not used to cover the costs for Rhinerson and school board members John de Beck, Shelia Jackson and Katherine Nakamura, who attended and lobbied legislators during the weekend at an expense of $1,400 to $2,100 per person. Their expenses were paid from their own departments, according to school district staff.
"Some people say, 'You shouldn't go.' But if we're not at the table when they're handing out money, we're not ever going to be able to get anything extra," said Shelia Jackson, president of the San Diego Unified board. "We'll always be behind the power curve."
Grier credited their lobbying with saving millions of dollars for San Diego Unified by swaying legislators to write Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and urge him to send stimulus money along to schools instead of withholding it for the state. The school district ultimately received twice as much stimulus money as it had originally expected, another factor that allowed it to avoid cutting athletics, the arts or other programs popular with parents. Rhinerson said that focusing on the meal costs was "losing the point" of the conference and the lobbying, which built valuable relationships with legislators, their staff and other school officials.
"It is much easier to vote against programs when you don't have personal relationships with the people directly impacted by that vote," Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña wrote in an e-mail to voiceofsandiego.org several months ago when the conference took place. She added, "Travel and face to face meetings, with relatively low costs, can often have the same multiplier impact and result in benefits far beyond the dollars and cents."
School board member Richard Barrera, who visited Sacramento several times to lobby state officials, said that the D.C. meal expenses were "just not appropriate" in light of the budget crisis. He said that he and school board member John Lee Evans paid their own way for lunch in the state capital. Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union, said that even though the expenses were only a sliver of the total deficit facing San Diego Unified, they would rankle with teachers facing larger classes and smaller budgets for classroom supplies due to the financial crisis.
"It's important that the school district not use money in a way that appears decadent — even if it's acceptable under the rules," Zombro said.
"We're not having venison," she said.
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