August 31, 2007

A “Public Friendly” Budget

By E.A. Barrera

With San Diego’s kids heading back to school on September 4, Trustees of the San Diego County Board of Education have instructed local schools’ superintendent Carl Cohn to investigate creating a “Budget Design Committee” made up of people outside the normal budget process. The Trustees voted unanimously during their August 7 meeting to assign Cohn the task of making the 2008-2009 budget process more “public friendly” and easier to understand.

“Such a budget-format change will make the budget process open and transparent, and will give citizens a clearer understanding of the nuts and bolts of spending on public education in our community. The Budget Committee will be an appointed committee of the Board of Education and subject to open meeting regulations. The members will establish a budget timeline, and a process for public hearings on budgetary matters,” said Trustees John de Beck and Mitz Lee.

Criticism of the current budget process boiled over last June 26, when Lee, De Beck and Katherine Nakamura voted in protest to not approve the San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) budget - forcing funding for San Diego’s schools to be held over a day. The three trustees said the state’s “rushed time-line of two business days for public comment” was unfair to parents and concerned citizens.

“Over the years, citizen groups and community watchdogs, such as the League of Women Voters, and Taxpayers’ Association, and other fiscal watchdogs have criticized the opacity of public agencies’ budgets and the difficulty that taxpayers and elected officials alike have in deconstructing them,” said Lee.

The 150-year old San Diego Unified School District serves more than 130,000 students. It is the second largest school district in California, and the eighth largest urban school district in the United States. More than 15 ethnic groups and 60 languages are spoken among the student population in a system that encompasses 250 educational facilities with close to 16,000 employees. There are 114 elementary schools, 23 middle schools, 27 high schools, 34 charter schools, and 18 so-called “atypical” or alternative schools in the district.

According to the district, student population density remains highest in the heavily Latino Mid-City area. School improvements and renovations have been an on-going concern - especially in the older neighborhoods that have seen more density in recent years. Almost a decade after 78 percent of San Diego voters passed Proposition MM, the $1.51 billion bond measure to repair older schools, and construct 12 new schools budgetary matters continue to plague the district.

The SDUSD states that increased operating costs, such as health care benefits, and the ongoing state fiscal crisis have forced “cost-saving” measures - including the elimination of vacant positions, a supplemental early retirement incentive, an energy conservation effort and what the district says is “the difficult elimination of many non-instructional employee positions.”

“For the 2004-05 school year, schools made site-based decisions that cut more than $22 million in spending. This was on top of more than $43 million in central office cuts and a $36 million reduction in Blueprint spending made during the 2003-04 school year. The district’s Executive Leadership Team, consisting of the Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Chief of Staff, Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Financial Officer, continues to meet regularly regarding budget development. The Board of Education receives regular budget briefings and provides guidance and direction to district staff,” stated Cohn’s office.

Cohn joined the San Diego Unified School District in 1995. Though his spokesman Jack Brandais, the Superintendent outlined a future budgetary process that would summarize the year’s spending and provide a policy budget with “rounder numbers.”

“The goal is to create a more user-friendly budget that the average person can review and understand,” said Brandais. “The process now is state mandated and often the budget is very technical and hard to understand.”

Under the plan submitted by de Beck and Lee, the committee would be made up of 21 people coming from outside the normal budget process, including school principles, teachers, and members of the public. Lee estimated such a committee would cost the district $100,000 to operate. De Beck said that what he wanted to see was a budget document that was “understandable, readable and public friendly” and provide a broader view of where the SDUSD’s budget wants to go in the coming fiscal year.

“What’s changing from last year to this year? Where is the money going? This is the information the public wants to be able to see and understand,” said de Beck.

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