SANTEE, Calif. — When it came to honoring teachers on May 14, the state's official Day of the Teacher, the Santee Elementary School District went all out.
School officials in this rural suburb of San Diego treated 401 people--about 300 of them teachers--to lunch at San Diego's Atlantis Restaurant. Also attending were Santee's mayor, a councilman, three school board members and PTA officials.
Total price: about $4,500.
The school system had raised only $1,700 in donations, however, to pay for the affair. So, to come up with the additional $2,800 to cover the tab, it dipped into its share of California Lottery proceeds.
But the use of lottery money for the repast has been questioned by teachers and infuriated at least one parent in the city. And the expenditure may have gone against guidelines for use of lottery proceeds, according to a state lottery official.
"There would be a question in my mind as to whether or not it was legal," said Timothy Ford, staff counsel for the California Lottery.
Under state law, school systems can spend lottery money for just about any "instructional" purpose, as long they don't build schools, buy land or finance research.
However, the guidelines have never been tested in court to determine exactly what school districts are prohibited from doing, Ford said. In addition, the Lottery Commission has no enforcement powers. It would be up to a citizen to sue over a violation, Ford said.
According to Supt. Doug Giles, last week's affair to honor outstanding current and retiring teachers fits the definition of "instructional" use of lottery funds. After the three-hour lunch, the teachers headed over to Sea World for a free behind-the-scenes glimpse at how animals are trained.
"I would not have done it if I had any qualms. I had none then and I do not now," Giles said.
Giles said he was trying to follow state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig's general suggestion that teachers be recognized with "special activities."
But the Santee Teachers Assn. had warned the school board at a March meeting that spending lottery money on the event was a mistake.
"We indicated that we did not think it was wise to use lottery funds to do that and we questioned its legality," said Margaret Steinrichter, president of the teachers union.
Why then did 300 teachers take part?
School officials told the union that the event was a mandatory training session. Failure to attend would be considered "an act of insubordination and a letter of reprimand" would be put into the personnel files of any missing teachers, Steinrichter said.
Steinrichter said she doubts that the district will use the lottery money to spring for meals again.
That would suit Gloria Jean Barrett, who spoke out against the lottery expenditure at the district's school board meeting Tuesday night.
"I thought it was ridiculous to pay that much money, $4,500," the mother of a Santee elementary school student said.
But she said she plans no further protest of the incident.
Giles said he has received about a dozen expressions of praise from staff, and only one "negative" phone call about the lunch expenditure. He noted that sending five teachers to a conference in San Francisco for five days would cost more than $2,800.
"It was the biggest single event boosting morale and positive feelings among this staff in the nine years that I have been superintendent of Santee school district," he said.