Millions of stimulus dollars that helped school districts across San Diego County survive this year and patch together their budgets for next year are drying up next summer, leaving districts that relied on the money to pay teachers or other employees fending off deficits as deep as before.
It is a new, if predictable, threat. Financial wonks call it “the funding cliff” — and school districts are now headed straight toward it.
“The reality is, all the stimulus did was save us for a few years,” said Dianne Russo, chief financial officer for the Sweetwater Union High School District.
When San Diego County school districts got roughly $360 million in federal stimulus money to help them cover last school year, this one and the next, the money came with clashing advice: Schools were supposed to save jobs. But they were also cautioned that since the money would run out, they should try to invest it in sustainable and innovative programs that would last beyond the funds.
Investing in training or data systems was difficult to stomach for districts that risked losing hundreds of employees. Instead, nearly half of California school districts said they spent the bulk of their stimulus money to prevent teacher layoffs, according to a survey by the state legislative analyst last fall.
In San Diego County, school districts saved more than 1,600 jobs with that money between January and the end of March this year alone, according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis of California Department of Education data.