Photo by Sam Hodgson
Protesters gathered outside San Diego Unified School District's offices before a board meeting on Tuesday to rally against a plan that would close area schools as the district grapples with possible insolvency.
The San Diego Unified School District’s board of trustees got a cold, harsh dose of fiscal reality from its financial consultant and its staff Tuesday night. Then it took an earful from angry parents, staff and even fifth-graders from schools the district has slated for possible closure.
Aside from some sparring on whether to reduce busing, a spat that ended with a majority of the board voting to reject further cuts, there was little actual action at Tuesday’s meeting. Rather, the marathon meeting was an opportunity for the board to air publicly the true depth of its financial woes and blame the state for those woes.
Financial consultant Ron Bennett, the first invited speaker, laid out the case for blaming the state, and stressed that districts across the state are facing similar disastrous choices between maintaining children’s education and possible financial ruin.
In the 2007-2008 school year, California was the 46th state in the nation in terms of per-student funding, Bennett said.
“And that was the high-water mark,” he said. “That was the most you ever got for your students, then in 2007-2008, we took a 15 percent cut.”
Since then, California’s continued cuts to education have been an “absolute disgrace,” Bennett said. Using budgetary gimmicks, the state has pushed its responsibility for making hard decisions onto school districts, a gambit that culminated in this summer’s state budget debacle.
Bennett outlined the state’s decision to project an optimistic $4 billion in extra revenues state, and described the legislative mandate from Sacramento that school districts must spend the money, even though they might never actually get it. His description of the budget games being played sent gasps through the 300-strong crowd of sign-waving education supporters, many of whom had clearly come to talk about school closures and seemed to be learning the details of the district’s dire financial situation for the first time.
After further stunning the crowd with statistics — he said if the state makes midyear cuts to San Diego Unified’s budget, the district will be down to the same per-student funding level it was at 11 years ago — Bennett rounded off his presentation with a schooling on what insolvency would mean for the district.
He detailed what a financial meltdown at San Diego Unified would look like, laying out the various steps along the road to a full state takeover of the district, the end result if the district declares insolvency.
First, the County Board of Education could step in to help the district resolve its problems. If that doesn’t work, the state can send in a team to analyze just how bad things are. If that fails, the state may have to make a loan to the district, at which point the district’s board and superintendent are stripped of their duties and a state-appointed official essentially takes over the district.
The topic isn’t new to the district. Internally, it’s been discussing possible insolvency for years even as the board has taken gambles on the state’s situation improving, potentially compounding the grave financial situation.
The purpose of Bennett’s presence at the meeting seemed more aimed at educating the broader public about just how dire things really are at San Diego Unified. Coming two weeks after district Superintendent Bill Kowba (who remained silent throughout Tuesday’s four-and-a-half-hour meeting) announced the district was “at the edge of the cliff, looking over and down at insolvency,” the presentation was the latest in a line of recent public proclamations of distress by the district.
When he had finished, board members grew indignant toward the state.
To whoops from the crowd, trustee Shelia Jackson demanded to know how the state could push her district to the edge of insolvency, then have the cheek to possibly step in and start running things.
“I’m kind of radical,” Jackson said. “My thing is, if the state won’t pay us to educate our children properly, can we just close all of our schools?”
Next in line after Bennett’s presentation was a budget update from the district’s chief financial officer, Ron Little, who spent a few uncomfortable moments being berated by Jackson and jeered at by the crowd. Jackson reprimanded Little for not giving accurate financial information to the public. On at least two of the big decisions the board has made in the last couple of years, she, like most of the board, has gone against financial staff’s advice.
There followed a long presentation about school busing, which ended with district officials laying out four options for reducing transportation, with projected savings for each plan that ranged from the negative to saving about $1 million.
Here, on the one significant item of the evening requiring a vote, the school board squared off. Trustee Scott Barnett angrily told his colleagues that transportation has to be looked at in the range of options for saving the district money.
He was booed by the crowd and responded, to no one in particular, “Did anybody pay attention to the fact that this district could soon be insolvent?”
Arguing that if the district doesn’t make hard decisions on issues like busing, the state could take over the district and impose harsh cuts across the board, Barnett’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Board President Richard Barrera told the crowd that a $1 million cut essentially wasn’t worth it, and said reducing transportation any more would cause undue hardship to thousands of students.
Trustee Kevin Beiser, meanwhile, maintained that despite staff’s claims, cutting busing wouldn’t save the district any money anyway.
The board voted 3-2 to leave busing unscathed, with trustee John Lee Evans siding with Barnett, on the basis that he’d like to see more details before coming to any conclusions.
That brought the meeting to the conclusion most of the crowd had gathered for: information about school closures.
There was no new news on whether or not closures will actually happen.
Phil Stover, the district’s deputy superintendent of business, reported that lots of meetings have been held to talk about which schools to close, and said those meetings were ongoing. Then he laid out the board calendar for making a decision on which, if any, schools should be closed.
Then dozens of people lined up to make impassioned pleas about why their schools should be saved.
In a small voice that caused lots of eyes in the crowd to tear up, nine-year-old Luke Cepurac, craning his neck to reach the microphone, told the board:
“I would like to graduate from Marvin Elementary like my sister did. I get good grades. I scored 600 in the math STAR test. I finished fifth grade math already, even though I’m in fourth grade. If I try harder, will you let us stay open? Because I will.”
After hearing the public comment, the board members assured the crowd, which had waned significantly, that they would study school closings very carefully before making any decisions.
And Barrera reiterated that the true solution to the schools’ budget woes is for parents and educators to lobby Sacramento and push for increased funding via tax hikes.
The district will next discuss possible closings on Nov. 29.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5670.
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