Tuesday, June 26, 2007 | Sometimes, you can be too smart for your own good. That’s the message parents of several hundred San Diego Unified School District students brought to the school board in a May report, asking for additional funding to expand a special program for exceptionally gifted students.

The parents warned that traditional classes provide the students with too little intellectual stimulation to keep their interest, sometimes causing academic and behavioral problems. It’s a message that appeared to resonate with the board, as three trustees pledged to work to increase funding for the gifted-and-talented program in the district’s upcoming budget.

Yet, as board members prepare to vote on the district’s $2.2 billion budget Tuesday, there is little indication of how much funding the program — or for that matter, most other district programs and departments — will receive. The 211-page document contains few details about the funding for the school system’s programmatic priorities in the fiscal year that starts next week. A voiceofsandiego.org analysis of budget records released by California’s major urban school districts indicates that San Diego’s five elected school board members will vote on a spending plan that lacks many of the basic elements traditionally available to other elected school officials across the state.

One local government observer, San Diego County Taxpayers Association President and CEO Lani Lutar, said San Diego’s document “is one of the most poorly prepared budgets I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t see how anyone can pick up this budget document and have a clear understanding of what’s going on,” Lutar said. “It makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide. This was not a budget document prepared with the goal of trying to inform the public.”

Released Friday, less than a week before the vote, the budget explains how the state’s second-largest school district will use more than $2 billion in state and federal funds, lottery proceeds and local property taxes to educate nearly 130,000 students expected to enroll in San Diego public schools in the fall. It is packed with detailed spreadsheets and cash flow statistics designed for and by state accountants. The district has also released a 22-slide PowerPoint presentation that will be shown to the school board Tuesday, though the summary includes spending information for only some of the school district’s programs; a budget for the gifted-and-talented program, for example, is not included.

Also not included: an executive summary; a table of contents; the superintendent’s budget message; a department-by-department breakdown of the spending; overarching district’s goals and priorities for the year; staffing projections; and definitions of complex accounting terms. Most of these elements can be found in budgets of the other major school districts reviewed by voiceofsandiego.org and in model budget documents distributed by School Services of California, a Sacramento consulting firm that trains school district accountants. These elements are also among the recommended best-practices adopted by the Government Finance Officers Association, a professional organization for government bookkeepers.

State laws require districts to approve only the official budget document sent to the state. School Services of California President and CEO Ronald Bennett said the budgets typically represent the bare minimum presented to elected officials and the public.

“The legal requirement is that the board has to vote on the state-approved forms, which mean nothing to anyone other than the accountants. They must do that budget, but they may do many other things as well,” he said. “In a very complicated district like San Diego, typically we’d expect to see a fair amount of supplementary materials.”

To date, school board members and the public have received few of those supplementary documents.

‘User-Friendly Budget’

The complexity of San Diego’s spending plan was first publicized nearly a decade ago by consultants hired by the Girard Foundation, a local education nonprofit, to analyze the financial statements of school districts in the county. (The foundation’s president, Buzz Woolley, is the founder of voiceofsandiego.org.)

What the consultants found, recalled Steve Frates, a senior fellow at Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute for State and Local Government, was a complicated web of financial filings written for Sacramento bureaucrats. It took Frates, working with a full staff of researchers, “a long time” to translate those filings into useful information about the county’s education policies, he said.

“We cracked the accounting code,” Frates recalled.

San Diego was not the only district in the county using opaque budgeting methods among those analyzed by Frates’ team. Building on this work, the Girard Foundation later hired a consultant to develop new bookkeeping software that could use raw financial data to generate useful budget summaries. First released in 2001, the User-Friendly Budget was designed to do for school budgets what TurboTax has done for income tax filings, and has been distributed to school districts free of charge by School Services of California.

“Our purpose in funding the report (and software) was to create greater transparency for the public, and to encourage the district to have more dialogue with their constituents about how much they were getting and how they were using the money,” said Susan Wolking, the Girard’s Foundation executive director. “The format of school budgets was so unintelligible to most people, including school board members and people who work with these things, our feeling was that you really needed a user-friendly budget format that would make it easier for people to understand.”

But, though the new software has been available at no cost, and even though another organization has provided funding to train school accountants and other staff in how to use it, San Diego Unified has not begun using the User-Friendly Budget program.

Board member Shelia Jackson said the district has long talked about adopting a more readable format for presenting its annual financial plan, something Chief Administrative Officer Jose Betancourt has promised to make a priority of his administration. So far, though, the effort has fallen through the cracks.

“The district was looking to transitioning to an easier-to-read format, and I just think that, because of all of the things that we were doing this year, that didn’t happen,” Jackson said.

An Unusual Budget Season

The plight of the district’s gifted-and-talented program, which currently has too few teachers to accommodate all of the students designated as eligible for special courses, in many ways symbolizes the unusual budget process used by San Diego Unified this year.

After board members Katherine Nakamura, John de Beck and Mitz Lee urged the district to allocate additional funding for the special courses at the May 8 meeting, Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores promised that district staff would to bring the issue back before the board in early June. It never did.

Nor did the school board ever meet to develop the district’s budget priorities, something most districts do in April, according to the standard budget calendar distributed by School Services of California.

In San Diego, the school board hasn’t yet considered whether to hire additional teachers at school sites to increase staffing for the gifted student program, though de Beck thinks some additional money has been included in the budget. (He said he can’t be sure because of the way the budget is structured.) By contrast, in Los Angeles, home to the state’s largest school district, school board members vote on a budget that explicitly lists authorized staffing levels for each type of instructional service, and for every central-office department.

Though school board controls nearly as much money as San Diego’s city government, and though San Diego Unified employs nearly 50 percent more people than the city, the district’s budget will be presented and discussed at only one public hearing, scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. By contrast, the San Diego City Council has held a series of contentious meetings over a period of months to hammer out the city’s spending plan.

“The budget process in the past has been far more transparent,” de Beck said. “This budget isn’t totally a cover-up. It’s just that nobody in their right mind can figure out what it says.”

District finance staff did not respond to questions submitted late last week and on Monday. District spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer said the school system has followed the same process for developing a budget it has used in previous years. Asked about the missing elements found in the budgets of other districts, Kroemer pointed to a “budget-at-a-glance” document posted on the district’s website — and prepared last year. An updated summary of the new budget, she said, would be posted after the document is approved.

Kroemer also disputed Lutar’s suggestion that the district was trying to conceal information.

“The (taxpayers association) CEO asked: What are we trying to hide? Nothing,” she said.

Lutar, however, argued that it should not take the intelligence of a gifted student to understand how the district plans to spend its money.

“I can’t speak for how this compares to prior budgets, I can only speak to what my understanding as to what the industry standards and best practices are, and also as an average taxpayer, it’s simply incomprehensible,” she said. “And you don’t have to be an expert to know that it’s not OK.”

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