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South County scandal, budget issues dominate headlines

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A rendering shows the vision for SDSU's new South Campus Plaza project. Courtesy SDSU

Past corruption in some South County school districts was a continued focus through early 2014, but news with tie-ins to state budgeting for schools also made headlines.

Plea deals close cases against school officials
By April, every indicted South County-area school district official pled guilty to some wrongdoing in the corruption probe uncovering their receipt of gifts from construction contractors ahead of their votes on contracts. Among the most serious crimes admitted to was felony conspiracy, a crime for which former Sweetwater Union High School District board member Pearl Quinones was sentenced to 90 days of in-home custody, a $7,900 fine and 10 days of community service.

The case involved multiple contractors and more than a dozen officials from Sweetwater Union High School District, San Ysidro School District and Southwestern College.

District tries to recover contract money
As the criminal cases were generally wrapped up in the South County probe, actions were ongoing in a lawsuit to allow Sweetwater Union High School District to recover associated contract money. The district filed a motion in May for a summary judgment against Gilbane Building Co. and the Seville Construction Group for the return of $26 million. In June, a continuance motion from the contractors' lawyers was denied, with a judge finding no evidence that extra time should be allowed for the deposition of school officials who had pleaded to various misconduct. The hearing on the summary judgment is scheduled for later in the summer.

New funding model spurs coalition's creation
Local business and community groups launched a coalition to improve public input on education spending and classroom performance. Creation of the coalition -- called the Coalition for Local Education through Accountability of Resources, or CLEAR -- was led by groups including San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the American Civil Liberties Union and influenced by Gov. Jerry Brown's "local control funding formula." That formula moved the state away from funding schools on enrollment alone and intended to increase local accountability. A base per-pupil grant is still provided but can be supplemented by grants for English-learning, economically disadvantaged or foster youth students. CLEAR hopes to direct extra funds toward students having to overcome educational obstacles.

SDSU looks to bolster community, grades through housing
San Diego State University is in a housing push, influenced by both its requirement for first-time freshmen from outside SDSU's local service area to live on campus for a year and studies indicating generally better grades for students living on campus. The university says those living on campus have a 10 to 15 percent better chance of doing well in college, are more likely to have higher GPAs, take more units and graduate on time. Construction on the $53.3 million Zura Hall renovation is set for a July 2015 completion. The South Campus Plaza project — approved this spring — will mix ground-floor retail with multilevel housing in two buildings and provide a parking garage.

-Compiled by James Palen, The Daily Transcript

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