Wednesday, June 27, 2007 | In an unprecedented public rebuke of Superintendent Carl Cohn and his staff, a majority of the San Diego Unified School District board voted to reject the school system’s proposed $2.2 billion budget Tuesday, just days before the start of the new fiscal year.

The vote against the budget by three school board members — John de Beck, Katherine Nakamura and Mitz Lee — effectively paralyzed the state’s second-largest school system in its planning for the school year that starts in September, with staff promising to work late into the night to produce a new spending plan to be presented at an emergency meeting scheduled for Wednesday. Under state law, the district must approve a budget by July 1.

In rejecting the draft document developed by Cohn’s finance staff, board members expressed concern about that the late release of the budget — it was published on Friday, after the district’s own deadline — and its dense presentation made the plan incomprehensible to the public and the elected trustees.

The surprise vote followed a report Tuesday showing that the school system’s plan lacked key budget details usually available to elected leaders and taxpayers at the state’s other major school districts. The report also indicated that the document prepared for the district did not conform to industry best-practices developed by the Government Finance Officers Association.

“We drew a line in the sand. Probably too late, but we drew it,” de Beck said after the meeting. “I can’t remember it ever happening before.”

He characterized the vote as a symbolic reprimand for the superintendent, conceding that it would probably not lead to major changes in the final budget. With the state’s deadline less than a week away, there is too little time to fundamentally alter the district’s spending plan, he said.

Tuesday’s vote represented the first time a majority of the board has so publicly split with Cohn, who took over the district in 2005 after years of tumult and controversy under previous Superintendent Alan Bersin. Though some officials and district personnel have previously expressed displeasure with elements of Cohn’s leadership, the criticism Tuesday for the superintendent and his top lieutenants, including Chief Financial Officer Bill Kowba, was notably sharp.

“There is no way on God’s green Earth that I can look at this budget and figure out the costs and benefits (of programs),” de Beck said at the meeting. “The real issue is whether or not this board eventually asks for a budget that is presented in a meaningful way. Some day, I’m going to get a budget that the public can understand.”

Lee, who has expressed worries about the lack of school board members’ input in the preparation of budget in recent weeks, echoed his criticisms.

“I cannot just rubberstamp it,” she said of the budget. “I just cannot possibly vote on this budget, and if we have to meet every day to get some clarity, then be it.”

Even Shelia Jackson and board President Luis Acle, the two trustees who voted to approve the spending plan, acknowledged that the district’s process for formulating the annual document was flawed. However, they urged the other three board members to give the superintendent another year to fully address the board’s concerns.

“There is no doubt that we won’t do it this way next year,” Jackson said.

After indicating that she might vote in favor of the document with some changes, Nakamura, representing the swing vote on the council, came down against the budget.

“We’ve chipped away at this over the past four years … but we’re not there yet,” Nakamura said, crediting Kowba with improving the district’s budget presentation before announcing that she would vote against the proposed plan.

Speaking at the meeting, San Diego County Taxpayers Association President and CEO Lani Lutar criticized the district for waiting until so late into the year to release the budget, and for scheduling only one public hearing on the document.

“Folks, in case this is news to you, it’s not normal for a public entity to vote on a $2.2 billion budget three business days after it’s released,” she said.

After the meeting, Lutar compared the controversy over the spending plan to the troubles faced by the city of San Diego, which has suffered from so many financial scandals in recent years that it was banished from Wall Street and labeled “Enron by the Sea” by the national press, in reference to the bankrupt energy giant.

“A comment that was made early on (at the meeting) was, ‘We don’t do things like the city of San Diego.’ Well, what they’re doing is worse than the city of San Diego,” Lutar said of the budget format after the vote.

In addition to airing the tensions between the elected board and the school system’s superintendent, Tuesday’s vote starkly highlighted the philosophical differences that have strained the unity on the five-member school board. The meeting once again opened the debate over the respective role of the board and the superintendent in guiding the direction of the district. Many had initially thought the debate was settled when the district hired Cohn, with the board promising not to micro-manage the school system and even including a no-meddling clause in the superintendent’s contract.

“We really need to focus on making global, normative decisions,” Acle said. “I think our responsibility is to approve the budget, it’s not to formulate the budget. And I don’t think it’s the community’s job to formulate the budget.”

Yet a majority of the board seemed to disagree Tuesday, as de Beck and Nakamura called on the trustees to examine several specific items included in the spending plan, including a proposed expansion of the district’s landscaping department and the opening of a new truancy-prevention center.

Jackson said the vote also exposed the socioeconomic divide among members of the board, pitting those representing areas south of Interstate 8 (Jackson and Acle) against those in wealthier areas of the city.

“We have to do the greatest good for the greatest number (of people),” she said. “Some of the things that maybe groups of people have brought forth only target one group of students.”

However, Jackson also acknowledged that recent controversy may have undermined the public’s trust in the school district.

“Certainly there are things we discovered happening in this district that shouldn’t be happening,” she said.

Earlier this month, reported that the district had paid $130,000 to a communications consultant under an unusual arrangement designed to allow him to continue to collect his state pension.

Late Tuesday night, district finance staff said they were working to address some of the board’s concerns before the special meeting scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the district office on Normal Street.

“We’re brainstorming right now, trying to develop some different presentational information to meet some of the requirements of the board,” said Kowba, the chief financial officer. “They gave us guidance that they wanted additional detail, and I have some of the staff working with me right now, and we’re trying to write some ideas on a white board.”

Asked if the board’s and Lutar’s criticism of the budget presentation was fair, Kowba said: “I don’t prefer to comment on that.”

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