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Skepticism over school stimulus 

The federal government has agreed to devote millions of dollars toward schools. But in SLO County, where budgets are stretched and skepticism is now almost a reflex, the response has been less than jubilant.

Local schools have been pegged to receive more than $6 million in economic recovery funds to be spent on programs for low-income and special-education students. But with some districts hurting more than others, the disbursement of money appears unbalanced.

San Luis Coastal Unified School District, which enjoys a special status because of its high property-tax-generated revenue, is estimated to face no teacher layoffs this year, yet could collect $368,572 from one pot of money. Atascadero Unified School District, which is anticipating about 52 layoffs to stay solvent this year, was allocated only $259,850. Templeton Unified School District, expecting as many as 22 layoffs, was allocated $143,417.

The disparity comes from the way the money is allocated, which typically is based on student population. The Lucia Mar School District, the largest in SLO County, is expected to receive the most money for low-income students: $763,558. Such money, however, essentially can’t be used to stave off teacher layoffs or rehire axed faculty members—Lucia Mar must cut 125 positions, and about 160 teachers were told they might be fired.

Another pool of money, the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, should help prevent layoffs, but district officials are not hopeful. “I guess we’re just nervous,” said Mary Jarvis of the County Office of Education.

The federal government released about $5.9 billion to California to help needy districts, but there is no indication on how much each district could get or when. As with other types of funds, it’s possible that money could be based on population instead of financial standing.

School officials are nervous because though the federal stimulus money is supposed to go to districts, there is still worry about a state hijack. Federal money is distributed by the state, which recently bandaged a $40 billion deficit and is estimated to already be about $14 billion in the hole.

There are two big fears: either the state will outright take the money to deal with its own financial troubles or districts will get money but experience further state cuts and the whole exchange will be a wash. Either way, no one seems to be preparing for a miracle that will save teacher jobs.

“All I know is there are things in the pipeline moving, but we don’t know what’s going to come out of the pipe,” Atascadero Unified School District Superintendent John Rogers said.

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