San Diego's Elite Private Schools Take Millions in Small Business Loans

NBC 7 Investigates finds San Diego’s most expensive private schools took millions in federal aid.

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Some of San Diego County’s elite private schools received as much as $23.5 million in federal coronavirus relief loans aimed at helping small businesses that are struggling to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Tuition at the schools range from $16,500 to as much as $37,130 in yearly tuition. 

On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department and Small Business Administration released data on all businesses that took out Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

Introduced as a relief fund for small businesses to keep employees on the payroll during the shutdown order, the size and scope of the PPP loan program grew. 

Since May 30, the federal government has issued more than 4.4 million loans to businesses throughout the country. In San Diego County, more than 44,000 businesses applied for and were granted PPP loans, ranging from as little as $100 to $10 million. 

Recipients, as first reported by NBC 7 Investigates, included some of San Diego’s most popular brewers and chain restaurants such as Karl Strauss, Modern Times, and San Diego chain restaurants Rubio’s and Claim Jumper.   

In addition, NBC 7 Investigates found that numerous charter schools claimed more than $15.8 million in PPP loans.

But among the 47,000 companies were some of San Diego County’s elite private schools where tuition is just under the mean income as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau. The federal PPP data gives a dollar range of loans over $150,000.

The loans are in contrast to statements given by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in March when he took to Twitter and demanded that elite schools with endowments return any PPP money they received.

Despite the treasury secretary’s warning, elite private schools across the nation applied for and received the funds. San Diego County schools were no different. 

At La Jolla Country Day School, tuition or daycare costs $20,690 a year while tuition for high school students starts at $37,130 for a year. Federal data shows La Jolla Country Day received a $2-$5 million check in the form of a PPP loan.

A few miles away in Linda Vista, tuition at Francis Parker School is $33,740 for high school students while grade schoolers pay $20,860 a year. As was the case with La Jolla Country Day, Francis Parker received a $2-$5 million small business loan. 

North on Interstate 5 on Del Mar Heights Road is home to Cathedral Catholic High School. Administrators there, where tuition costs $19,368 annually, also took out a $2-$5 million PPP loan.

As for other elite schools to large PPP loans; San Diego Jewish Academy where annual tuition is $29,480 took out a $1-$2 million loan;  Academy of Our Lady of Peace (OLP) where tuition is listed at $20,200 received a $1-$2 million loan as well, Mater Dei High School where students pay $17,680 in tuition received $1-$2 million, and Saint Augustine’s School which costs $20,346 per school year also took the same amount.  

Other elite private schools to get an economic boost include Cathedral Catholic.

Ed Hearn has served as President of Saint Augustine High School since 2006. Hearn tells NBC 7 that COVID-19 didn’t discriminate when it came to economics and his school, like so many other institutions, suffered since the shutdown. 

“Our school’s tradition goes back 98 years, said Hearn. “We have a lot of families, 52 percent of which are on financial assistance.”

Hearn said Saint Augustine received $1.24 million in PPP money.

“We thought we were going to lose a lot of students,” said Hearn. “Turns out we are starting to gain those students back for a lot of reasons. We have been able to pay our teachers. We did some fundraising with the alumni and the alumni were very generous in helping families pay their back tuition so they could register for classes.” 

Hearn said that the school will return the money if after the pandemic, it is not needed. 

“We have tremendous alumni out there in the community doing great things all the time in San Diego. I feel that it's an investment for a better day in San Diego. There are going to be a hundred catholic schools that will close their doors across the country because of this pandemic.” 

Mater Dei High School in Chula Vista is one of those Catholic schools that took over a million dollars in coronavirus relief. Federal data shows school administrators received a $1-$2 million PPP loan last April.

A spokesperson for the diocese says the PPP loans for Cathedral Catholic and Mater Dei, both of which operate under the authority of the Diocese, “helped with the payroll of 216 employees and the loan Mater Dei received helped with the payroll of 112 employees.”

San Diego Jewish Academy told NBC 7 in part that the school "does not have a large endowment or cash reserves to absorb losses."

Meanwhile, public advocacy groups say those loans could potentially come at a cost for small businesses. 

Sean Moulton is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a non-partisan watchdog group based in Washington DC.

“I think there are valid questions to be asked of recipients,” said Moulton in an interview with NBC 7 Investigates. “This was a program that was meant to go to small businesses that did not have forms of other capital during this crisis.”

Moulton says that while he didn’t want to comment specifically on private schools and whether or not elite schools should have received PPP loans, he did say the public has the right to ask. 

“This is taxpayer’s money and they have the right to ask questions,” he said. “And, that is why it's so important for this information to come out, so that we can evaluate whether the money went to the right places or not.” 

NBC 7 Investigates reached out to Francis Parker School, San Diego Jewish Academy, La Jolla Country Day. Click on the links above to see their full comments.

Our Lady of Peace did not respond to our requests for comment.

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