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Tuesday July 2, 2007 | Last week, the San Diego Unified School District governing board adopted the annual budget by a 3-2 vote (John de Beck and Mitz Lee opposed) less than one week after it was released to the public in an unintelligible format. Not only was the budget virtually impossible to comprehend, it was released late, and no public workshops or hearings were held in advance of the date that the budget was scheduled to be adopted by the board.

None of the board members disputed the fact that the $2.2 billion budget was nothing more than a compilation of undecipherable spreadsheets. Yet three out of five board members signed off on it, nevertheless. Their reasons differ, but as the voiceofsandiego.org’s Vladimir Kogan reported last week, at least one board member believes that the governing board’s role is limited to approving the budget, not formulating it. That same board member also believes that the community doesn’t have a right to get involved in the budgetary process.

Another board member said she felt comfortable approving the budget after being assured that the trustees could make amendments to some programs in July, and making clear that she wanted the process changed next year. And yet another proclaimed that approving the budget was the right thing to do “for the children.” I almost gagged when I heard that one.

But the bottom line is that the board adopted a $2.2 billion budget that everyone agreed was confusing and unclear, without reasonable time for public review. If you believe, as I do, that budget is policy and policy is budget, then consider for a moment the consequences of the board’s action. Adoption of the budget sets policy in place, just as policy can have fiscal implications. If the board doesn’t have a clear understanding of the budget, it’s very possible that it may have inadvertently adopted policy that adversely impacts over 130,000 students.

And even if you support the argument that the budget should reflect policies adopted and deliberated by the board earlier in the year and therefore doesn’t require extensive public review, shouldn’t you be able to verify that the budget does in fact reflect those policies?

A governing board that doesn’t take the time to ask questions to make sure it understands the budget or to hear from the public regarding budgetary implications its members may not have considered is a governing board that is failing to meet its fiduciary duty to provide proper fiscal oversight.

Case in point: On the same day the board was reviewing the budget, the district’s deferred maintenance five-year plan was also on the agenda. During public testimony, I pointed out the fact that this was not a fiscally prudent plan, as it didn’t set aside enough funding to keep the problem from growing exponentially over the years. I wanted to know if the board was aware of the total backlog of deferred maintenance since it wasn’t disclosed in the staff report. The good news was that the staff had an answer. The bad news was that the liability was estimated at $600 million. Some board members seemed concerned by this news and suggested that something ought to be done. The staff’s response: They’re working on developing a long-range plan, and therefore, now wasn’t the time to deal with it. Now that’s interesting. According to staff, the budget hearing was an inappropriate time to be making amendments to the budget.

I suppose I was naive to believe that the folks responsible for setting education policy would know better than to repeat the city of San Diego’s mistakes.

During the limited budget debate that took place, the superintendent went so far as to remind the board that extensive review of the programs in the budget was a violation of his employment contract, and constituted meddling. Now that was an eye-opener. Since when did a transparent budget review process for a $2.2 billion public entity become micromanagement? The frightening thing about this comment was that it left many with the impression that the hasty, opaque budget process was intentionally designed to manipulate the decision-making process.

If the governing board and district administration is truly committed to changing the process, they shouldn’t sit back and wait until next year to fix it. There is another deadline in the near future that offers the district some opportunity to save face. While July 1 is the state-set deadline to file the budget with the county superintendent of schools, the district has until Sept. 8 to submit a revised budget. The district should schedule several public hearings dedicated to budget review between now and September, and the finance staff should use this time to reformat the budget and provide additional information, so that the school board and public can actually follow it. Only then can the district begin to regain the confidence and trust of the taxpayers.

Lutar is president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes cost-effective and efficient government. Agree with her? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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