Thursday, June 28, 2007 | A day after rejecting a proposed $2.2 billion budget because of concerns about its transparency and presentation, a majority of the San Diego Unified School District board voted to approve the school system’s spending plan without a single change Wednesday.

Meeting at an extraordinary special session, the trustees reversed course after district accountants warned that they would not be able update the budget document with any changes the school board made this week in time to meet the state’s July 1 deadline. However, the vote came after Superintendent Carl Cohn promised that the district would not spend any money on a controversial new truancy-prevention center, a Mission Bay ROTC program and a proposal to expand the school system’s landscaping staff until the school board again reviews the items in July.

Trustees John de Beck and Mitz Lee, who led the protests against what they described as the “incomprehensible” structure and presentation of the budget and the document’s late release to the public last Friday, voted against the plan. Another trustee, Katherine Nakamura, the third vote against the budget on Tuesday, said she was comfortable with approving the document pending further discussion next month. She warned, however, that the format of the district’s budget was “not acceptable.”

“I would really like a budget that treats us like adults and acknowledges that we’re not experts in finance,” Nakamura said. “It’s sad that this is the clearest I’ve seen it in four years.”

Wednesday’s meeting represented the conclusion of a remarkable budget season for the district, the first time in anyone’s memory that the board voted down a proposed budget just days before the start of the fiscal year. That vote marked the board’s first major rebuke of the Cohn and his staff, as several trustees complained that they were kept out of the loop in the formulation of the district’s spending plan. The controversy gave rise to the same kind of concerns that marked the turbulent tenure of Cohn’s predecessor, Alan Bersin, who was accused by critics of consolidating too much control over the district in his office.

On Wednesday, district staff presented new budget details in response to complaints that the spending plan was drafted with little school board input and sprung on the board and the public for the first time less than two weeks before the start of the fiscal year. Lee, who had urged the school board to begin work on the budget as early as February, said the new information did little to pacify her worries about the district’s budget-development process.

“This does not change the fact that we were pressed against the wall and forced to rubberstamp this budget,” she said. “Is this a $2.2 billion operation, the way we should do business?”

In a last-minute lobbying effort before the meeting, San Diego County Taxpayer Association President and CEO Lani Lutar had urged the board to delay a final vote on the district’s budget until September, well after the deadline set by state law, to allow for enough time for the district to prepare a new document that incorporated all of the best-practices recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association. On Tuesday, reported that the district’s plan fell short of the GFOA standards and failed to include many elements available to elected officials and the public at California’s other major school systems.

However, Nakamura and trustees Shelia Jackson and Luis Acle rejected calls for delay, arguing that the board would still be able to make revisions to problematic areas of the budget in coming months. The board also rejected a proposal by de Beck to freeze the funding for all new staff positions and programs until the trustees had a chance to review each new program during the summer.

“I think that the issue really is the board’s oversight of how we got to this point,” de Beck said. “We have the right, and I believe the responsibility, to review the new programs and approve them.”

His proposal was criticized by Cohn, who warned that the extensive review would amount to micro-managing of the district on the part of the board, something explicitly prohibited by the superintendent’s contract.

“I’m very concerned about anything where we return to an era of the board directing the work of the staff. I believe that is a fundamental violation of [my] contract,” Cohn said of the plan.

However, the superintendent and the district’s staff pledged that they would implement major reforms in the school system’s budgeting process next year.

The staff report presented Wednesday also revealed new details about the operation of the district, previously buried among hundreds of pages of technical financial data. Among them:

  • Of nearly $7,000 in regular funding the district receives from the state for each student, excluding money for restricted programs, the district has allocated about $4,300 to each elementary school, $3,800 to each middle school and $4,800 to each comprehensive high school. The rest of the money will be used to fund district office staff and centralized programs operated directly by the district.
  • The school system will spend more than $212 million on its central office next year, a decrease of 15 percent.
  • It costs the school system more than $5,500 per student to operate its small high schools, promoted as more personal and effective approach to the traditional, large campuses. The price tag represents a 16 percent increase over the cost of running traditional high schools, though some of the extra cost is being funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • While it expects the amount of money spent on certificated staff — teachers and school administrators — to fall over the next four years, the districts estimates it will spend 18 percent more on work done by outside contractors by 2010.

In addition, the district plans to spend nearly $70 million of its discretionary money next year to supplement state funding for special education, the cost of which has grown exponentially in recent years.

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