September 7, 2001

"Legal Mistake"!: SABER Program Gets Back Grant

By Yvette tenBerge

Teachers, parents and students are not the only ones who headed back to Sherman Elementary this week. Thanks to a united front of dedicated employees, determined parents and committed teachers, SABER Colaborativo, an initiative that has created a system of social support, health education and wellness promotion for Sherman children and families for the past eight years, will also be going back to school.

Much to the surprise and relief of community members, a portion of their year-long struggle has ended in their favor. In an unprecedented move, the San Diego Unified School District admitted that they made a "legal mistake" by appropriating the funds from one of three grants awarded to the SABER program.

Although the district has yet to address their highly questionable handling of both an Even Start Grant worth $960,000 and of a "6 to 6" after school program grant worth $100,000, on August 29, they announced their decision to return funding from a 21st Century Grant worth $195,000 per year for three years to its rightful owners.

Georgia Malcolm, school psychologist at Sherman Elementary for the past 13 years and Director of the SABER program, says this news comes when it is most needed. "We were supposed to be able to charge against this grant as of March 1, 2001, and the money should have started to flow as of June 1, 2001. We are at least three months behind on this grant, which has been very difficult. There is an entire science section that could not happen, a lot of curriculum planning that could not happen, and we had to lay a couple of people off for a few weeks," says Ms. Malcolm, who shutters when recalling this past summer. The normally bustling community center, a building across the street from Sherman Heights Elementary where SABER hosts many of its programs, was almost empty. "Luckily these valued and talented employees did not leave us and find other jobs. Thank God they are still with us."

SABER's financial problems began roughly one year ago, with the arrival of Sherman Elementary's current principal, Valerie Voss. As is the case with many of the grants for which they apply, a non-profit organization such as SABER normally applies as a co-applicant with the school district. Although the money will eventually end up in the hands of the non-profit organization that applied for it, all monetary awards are set to funnel through the district, first. Prior to the current administration's scramble for money to fund its new Blueprint for Student Success, dispersing money in this fashion was not problematic.

According to SABER employees, their first warnings came when they realized that the district was keeping them in the dark about the details surrounding the status of the Even Start Grant. As the months passed with no answers to their questions and no money in sight, SABER kicked into gear and focused their efforts on applying for another grant to gain funding. Although they did not receive this other grant, and although the money from the Even Start and 6 to 6 grants still has not been returned to them, they recently discovered that they had finally been awarded the 21st Century Grant.

"Losing the Even Start Grant really took a toll on us emotionally because our organization had never taken a hit like that before. We thought we were going to lose the whole collaborative just like that. It was our basic funding, so without it, we thought we would just topple," says Ms. Malcolm, surrounded by SABER employees. They echo this surprise and call the district's appropriation of this almost $1 million in grant money "very slick." "There was not anything that we felt we could do at the time without jeopardizing ourselves or Ms. Voss. She was new, and we did not want to make waves for her. We realized that we were out numbered."

Estela Rubalcaba Klink, Director of the Sherman Heights Community Center, describes the community's response to the freeze that the district put on the almost $600,000 of the 21st Century Grant and the $100,000 that was to go toward her 6 to 6 after school program. "You know how fog can roll in so quickly that you suddenly cannot see beyond it? What happened with the Even Start Grant was alarming enough, but when they began doing the same thing with the 21st Century Grant and the 6 to 6 money, we decided that this was not going to happen to us," says Ms. Klink.

The Sherman Heights community filled the months of June and July with expertly organized protests, both within their neighborhood and at district board meetings. They spoke to the press and told their story to anyone who would listen. La Prensa was the first to go forward with their plight, keeping the coals burning with front-page stories and photo spreads, and by filing Freedom of Information requests with the district and with the State Department of Education, the body responsible for dispersing the Even Start Grant.

On Thursday, August 29, specific district employees, members of the San Diego Education Association and employees of SABER gathered to hear Principal Voss and Superintendent Alan Bersin admit that the district made a legal mistake by freezing the 21st Century Grant funding. In an August 30 memo, Ms. Voss stated that "any misunderstanding in the implementation was very unfortunate" as it had always been "everyone's desire to work together in this partnership" whose goal it is to "improve student academic achievement by providing educational, recreational, health and social services."

Tom Mitchell, Director of Communications and Community Relations for the
district, was present at the August 29 meeting, as well. When asked how such a large mistake could have occurred, he sums it up as an unfortunate example of miscommunication. "Procedurally, the district did make some mistakes when processing this grant. When Valerie Voss called the district a few months back with questions about this grant, the advice that she was given was that it was our money, so she could do what she wanted with it. This was done without anyone ever looking into the details. The problem here was that this was a grant written by SABER with some help from the district, and we agreed to that grant. Our first impression was,  `OK, we are the fiscal agent. We are responsible for the money, and we can determine how the money is spent.' Looking into this issue further, we realized that we needed to own up to the responsibility of our signature," says Mr. Mitchell. He admits that, although what happened in this case was unfortunate, at least everyone's "intentions were good."

When asked about the Even Start Grant, Mr. Mitchell says that it is a "done deal" and that the district stands firm on their claim to that money. How the district's appropriation of the Even Start money differs from their admittedly mistaken claim to the 21st Century monies, though, is unclear.

This "funny business" began in August of 2000 when SABER was awarded the Even Start Grant. As early as January 2001, the State Department claims that the district sent a detailed letter requesting that the non-profit organization on the grant application be changed from SABER Colaborativo to San Diego READS, a district-backed non-profit organization focused on literacy. This change was made even though SABER had written the grant and was requested only after the grant had been submitted. No one thought it necessary to tell SABER that the change was being made.

Despite Freedom of Information Acts filed on August 9 with the school district and the State Department, neither agency was able or willing to provide a copy of this request of change letter in which the district had to justify their decision to change partners.

As for what San Diego READS is actually doing with its newfound windfall, no one knows that, either. Requests for an itemized listing of the invoices submitted to the district from San Diego READS were unsuccessful. By law, "READS must invoice the District for each installment" of $24,456.60 per month and "each invoice must include receipts for all READS expenditures." Additionally, all invoicing must include "a report by READS on all activities performed the preceding month" before any monies can be paid. The district does not have, and was therefore unable to provide, this documentation.

Roxie Knupp, the district's Manager of Grants and Special Projects for the past 17 years, was also unable to shed any light on this issue. "I did not coordinate the implementation of the grant, and I was involved almost at arms length in the submission of the grant. Because of various public records requests, I became involved. I understand that it is being handled now and that there has been some confusion for up to as long as a year," says Ms. Knupp. "I would make a random guess that we will be able to sort this out within a few weeks."

Despite the suffering of those, like SABER employees, whose programs are threatened or have been downsized without warning, the district appears to be in no hurry to correct their wrongs or to reorganize an obviously ineffective system. Although the Sherman Heights community knows that they are still being short-changed, they are grateful that at least a part of their funding was returned.

Laura Norris, a mother of three, Co-Chair of the School Site Council and an employee of SABER, was also present at the August 29 meeting. "I appreciate Mr. Bersin for awarding this grant. As a parent, and on behalf of all parents, I can say that we are happy to be able to start these programs," says Ms. Norris. She measures her words when referring to the August 7 board meeting in which Board Member Ron Ottinger chastised the Sherman Heights community for their opposition.

"I would like to say that Mr. Ottinger owes the Sherman community and parents an apology for his remarks during the board meeting. We, the parents, feel that he owes us an apology for telling us to step back, for telling us that the district owns this money. I do not want him to represent us any more. He has not even stepped foot into this community," says Ms. Norris.

Elena Gonzalez, one of the SABER employees actually laid off due to the funding cuts this summer, agrees with Ms. Norris's statement. "Parents are really thankful that we have some of our money back, but most of them tell me that they are not really happy at all. They still have concerns about the district. Although we are appreciative, how can we trust them to do the right thing?" says Ms. Gonzalez, who, like all who have come through this exhausting ordeal, knows that what has happened with SABER is just a hint of what is really going on within the San Diego Unified School District. "This is just the beginning."

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