Thursday, June 21, 2007 | Less than a week before the first — and only — scheduled public airing of the school system’s budget, San Diego Unified District officials have missed their own deadline for releasing a draft of the spending plan that will determine how the state’s second-biggest school district is run next year.

Though district rules require school board members and the public to have received a copy of the spending plan by Tuesday, in time to review it ahead of the upcoming June 26 meeting when the board is scheduled to vote on the budget, district bookkeepers say they are still working on the document. They say they will complete the budget in time to release it three days before the meeting, the minimum required by the state’s open-meeting laws. The document must be approved by the school board by the end of the month.

The missed target date means that school board members will have just days to study how the district will spend more than $1 billion in the fiscal year that begins in July, a departure from the practices used by other major school systems in California and from how San Diego Unified has operated in previous years.

“You can’t expect anyone to possibly make an informed decision on a budget at one meeting, for a budget of that size,” said Lani Lutar, the head of the county’s Taxpayers Association. “Seventy-two hours in this case would hardly be sufficient to make an informed decision, in my opinion.”

Most of the district’s money will come from local property taxes, supplemented by state and federal dollars and lottery proceeds. Once approved, the total budget will fund all operations of the district’s nearly 200 schools, including the salaries of teachers, the purchase of textbooks and other equipment, and the maintenance of the facilities. Though many portions of the money are governed by strict rules on how they can be spent, and labor contracts dictate the salaries of workers, the school board may use the budget to make policy decisions about things such as class size or funding for special programs for gifted and talented students.

School board member John de Beck, who has criticized the district’s staff and Superintendent Carl Cohn in recent weeks for their handling of the school system’s financial planning, said he is still waiting for answers to questions about the district’s books. He said the information will determine the types of programs available to students next year.

“Until we have that kind of information, we’re basically operating in the blind,” de Beck said. “And that’s unfortunate.”

Chief Financial Officer Bill Kowba was out of town on a business trip Wednesday, and district spokesman Jack Brandais said he had no information on why the budget was not completed a week before the scheduled board meeting, as required by school board bylaws.

In a presentation last week, Kowba blamed a late-breaking budget season in Sacramento for delaying the release of vital information district staffers need to prepare the spending plan. State law requires the district to adopt a budget by the end of June, though the state’s own financial blueprint may not be completed by then. The district can modify the budget it adopts this month before a final version is submitted to the state in early fall, something the district has done in previous years.

Though the document adopted next week will not be the board’s final say over the district’s spending plan, observers say the budget will send a strong message about the school system’s funding priorities for the coming year.

“The budget sets the direction. The budget is the district,” said board member Katherine Nakamura. “Eleanor Roosevelt said you could tell what the people’s priorities are by looking at their checkbook.”

San Diego Unified will be the only one among the state’s top school districts that will vote on a budget only several days after one is released to the public. Spokesmen at Los Angeles Unified and Fresno Unified, the state’s largest and fourth-largest districts, respectively, said elected school board members have held public hearings on draft budgets there in recent weeks, ahead of the final adoption later this month.

At Long Beach Unified, the state’s third-largest school district and Cohn’s former employer, spokesman Chris Eftychiou said board members have held several discussions on the district’s spending plan at retreats in the spring before adopting the final document Monday. He said the timing of the state budget has not affected the ability of the district staff to prepare Long Beach’s plan.

“I think the challenge that many school districts face statewide is one of declining enrollment. … The state budget itself is not extraordinary (on this issue), one way or another. It looks like a kind of in-between budget, and the same probably goes for the timeline on approval,” Eftychiou said.

And at neighboring Grossmont Union High School District, board members saw a detailed, 43-page presentation on the budget more than two weeks ago.

San Diego school board member Mitz Lee, who has also criticized district staff for the delays, said she would call for a special second meeting next week to give the board time to review the document.

“I have yet to see it, but I guess to me, I’m not going to be pressed to approve a budget when questions are not answered,” she said. “They cannot force my hand to vote on a budget.”

Nakamura, however, said the board has had plenty of informal discussion on the district’s funding priorities in recent months. Earlier this year, for example, the district approved several hundred layoffs in anticipation of falling student enrollment next fall.

“We have a sense of what’s going,” she said. “If there is something in there that’s hidden, then we have got a much bigger problem with our relationship with the superintendent.”

Another elected trustee, board President Luis Acle, said the body would likely have little discretion over where the district’s resources are allocated, making the official adoption a mere formality.

“I think there is a tendency for people to miss an important point, and that’s that the amount of money that’s available for discretionary decisions is very limited,” Acle said. “Most of the money can’t be changed by the board, and neither can the public change it.”

However, Acle said he expected next Tuesday’s meeting to be a long and contentious one.

“Bring your coffee,” he said.

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