Parents balk at $800K price tag for Encinitas district’s yoga program

Proposal by Encinitas district being questioned

Some parents are questioning a proposal by the Encinitas Union School District to spend $800,000 next year on a program that provides yoga instruction for students, now that a private foundation has stopped funding the program through annual grants.

Four parents and two elementary school students addressed the school board at its meeting on Tuesday, May 24, asking that the board consider spending the money on programs other than yoga. (Yoga is an ancient practice from India that uses techniques such as breath control, meditation and body postures to achieve health and well-being.)

Next month, the school board will consider a $50 million budget for the 2016-17 school year, and the proposed spending plan includes an allocation of $800,000 to fund the yoga classes, which are part of the district’s Health and Wellness Program. The program also includes character education. Currently, 15 full- and part-time teachers provide two 30-minute yoga sessions each week for students at all nine of the district’s elementary schools.

A nonprofit group called the Sonima Foundation has been paying for the district’s yoga program since 2012, providing about $4 million in grants over that period, including $800,000 for the current school year.

The program has proved controversial — in 2013, an Escondido-based group filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging that its yoga program teaches Hinduism and is therefore unconstitutional. In 2015, a state appeals court upheld a Superior Court judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit, after finding that the district’s yoga program promotes physical and mental wellness, not religious indoctrination.

Anne-Katherine Pingree, one of the parents who spoke Tuesday, said she is not “anti-yoga,” but concerned about “responsible use of public funds.”

“As beneficial as yoga might be, we must be wise stewards of these public funds,” Pingree said. “I strongly believe there are better ways to use this $800,000 than earmarking it all for yoga.”

Other speakers asked the district to survey parents about how the district should allocate its general fund budget. They also suggested that the $800,000 should be used to support such areas as math, science, libraries, art and physical education.

“You’re telling us that academics is less of a priority than yoga, and I just don’t think that’s the sentiment of parents who pay their tax dollars and entrust our children to you,” said Leslie Schneider, a district parent and school board candidate. “I ask you to take a step back, engage with parents and value the feedback we have to offer.”

School board president Emily Andrade said board members could not respond to the speakers because the health and wellness funding was not officially on the meeting agenda.

In an interview after the meeting, Superintendent Tim Baird said the district learned a few weeks ago that the Sonima Foundation would not be funding the yoga program for next year. Baird said he proposed using funds anticipated for next year from such sources as increased property tax revenue and energy savings to keep the program going, while the district looks for other sources of long-term funding or ways to cut the program’s costs.

The district has spent a lot of time and money creating the program, said Baird. “Frankly, to throw this program away after all these years of development... doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Baird said he brought up the topic at an April 24 board meeting that included a preliminary budget discussion, because he wanted to know if that board supported continuing the program, or if the yoga teachers should be notified that their positions were being eliminated. Board members indicated they valued the program and wanted to look at ways of funding it for the short term.

As for the benefits of the yoga program, district officials point to a study conducted by the district and the University of San Diego, which found a correlation between the program and increased attendance, decreased behavior issues and improved physical health and skills.

“Generally, most parents, students and staff have been very supportive of this program,” said Baird, based on surveys and focus groups conducted by the district.

He disputed the contention that yoga is given a higher priority than core subjects such as math, science and language arts. Those subjects are taught by classroom teachers, he said, although individual schools do fund specialists in science and the arts through money raised by the Parent Teacher Associations, or education foundations.

“Classroom teachers teach core curricula and they do it very well,” said Baird. “We have highly trained, highly qualified teachers.”