Tuesday, June 12, 2007 | When the San Diego Unified School District board meets on Tuesday, its members will face a full plate of pressing issues and policy decisions affecting the city’s schools. But one of the most important ones won’t be on it.

In what they describe as a departure from the district’s tradition, two school board members say they and the public have yet to see any parts of the district’s budget for the fiscal year that begins next month. Though San Diego Unified’s fiscal plan will determine how the district spends more than $1 billion next year, the board will hold its first comprehensive budget discussion at a meeting June 26 — less than a week before a finalized budget must be adopted under state law.

In previous years, meeting agendas show, the board began planning the year’s spending plan in April and has previously held full-day workshops to allow board members to discuss each element of the document before it was finalized.

“The board has had literally no preliminary stuff on the budget at all,” said John de Beck, the district’s longest serving board member who was first elected in 1990. “In previous years, we’ve had preliminary budgets by now.”

In a Feb. 8 memo sent to district trustees, Superintendent Carl Cohn and the district’s senior staff, board member Mitz Lee called on Cohn to hold a series of formal budget discussion with the elected officials to help shape the district’s spending plan. As part of the calendar laid out by Lee, the board would have formulated a list of budget priorities in April, received an update on the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May budget revision last month, and spent June discussing and fine-tuning the final document.

“Depending on the flow of State and Federal resources and the continuing decline in enrollment we may be forced to make some very hard decisions in the coming months and years,” she wrote in the memo. “The public and our employees need to know and see our process for making these decisions.”

However, her proposal never made it to a board agenda. The meeting on budget priorities, which is usually held every April, never took place, and the district finance chief’s presentation on the state budget won’t come until this Tuesday, weeks later than usual. It’s a worrying change, de Beck said, that further illustrates the degree to which Cohn has established himself firmly in the driver’s seat of the school system, with minimal protest and input from the elected school board.

By waiting to unveil the budget until days before its due, the superintendent has indicated that he expects no major roadblocks ahead of its passage.

“In previous years, there was what you called community budget advisory. There would be drafts and drafts and a lot of drafts,” Lee said. “It concerns me to this day that I haven’t seen the look of (the budget).”

In previous years, according to district memos, budget staff sent board members various documents during the course of the spring addressing different parts of the full budget. Some correspondence, for example, would summarize the upcoming year’s revenue projections while others dealt with the cost of programs and staff salaries.

San Diego Unified Chief Financial Officer Bill Kowba, a former rear admiral hired by the district last fall, rejected the suggestion that board members have been excluded from the process of formulating the annual budget. Though he conceded that the discussion of budget priorities didn’t take place as it had in previous years, Kowba said his office has followed the budget routine the district has always used and that board members have been given ample chance shape the document.

Though the district has yet to hold a formal discussion on the entire spending plan, he said the board has repeatedly taken votes on pieces that, taken together, will constitute the final budget document.

“Across the year, the board and the superintendent and the district leadership, either through the every-two-week board meeting, or the intermittent board workshops, or in small sessions, are articulating the budget priorities, and I typically follow behind those discussions to do the costing out of those details,” he said.

For instance, Kowba said, the board voted earlier this spring to extend several district elementary schools through the eighth grade and approved layoffs for some staff, decisions he argues are the essential building blocks used to formulate a budget.

Kowba said he didn’t know whether his approach to the budget discussion differed from his predecessors. In previous years, according to district records, budget staff routinely sent board members correspondence ahead of the June vote discussing various aspects of the upcoming year’s spending plan. So far this year, trustees have not seen a budget-specific presentation since March — and that meeting was held so the board could certify the district’s adherence to the budget passed the year before.

The chief financial officer said he could not comment on how the district operated before he arrived, though he said he has remained in “regular communications” with the board.

“I can’t speak to how communications were handled prior to my coming,” he said. “I’m required to brief the board four times (a year) by the Education Code. Two weeks from now will be the seventh time.”

Another board member, Shelia Jackson, said that trustees have had plenty of opportunity to review the individual budget documents developed by each school site, which are used to put together the district-wide financial plan for the year. The school-site budgets have been available since March, she said, and interested members of the public had plenty of opportunity to contribute to their drafting at schools late last fall.

“I can tell you that as of this morning, I’m the only one that has been looking at them,” she said.

As the board’s vice president, Jackson serves on the committee that develops the agenda for each board meeting, along with Cohn and board President Luis Acle. She said Lee’s proposal was not scheduled for discussion because the district’s staff uses its own calendar for creating the annual budget.

Acle declined to comment Monday, and Cohn did not return a call seeking comment.

Previously, Acle has said that approving the district’s budget is one of the school board’s three primary tasks.

“We have really three basic responsibilities,” he said in an interview last month. “One is to formulate, or update, policy. Another is to approve the budget. The other is to hire or fire the superintendent.”

Katherine Nakamura, another school board member, said she was skeptical about the amount of time the board spent reviewing the budget in previous years. Without large impending layoffs, she said, it was only natural for the board to take a more hands-off approach this year.

“I don’t really know how productive it really was, to be honest with you,” she said of the full-day budget workshops the board has held in previous years.

However, Nakamura said she recognized that Kowba and Cohn have brought a different management style to the district and have tended to keep the budget cards closer to their vests than their predecessors.

“I’d like to see a little bit more detail than we have gotten sometimes,” she said. “I do feel like the door is closing a little bit. It maybe something that we need to pry back open a little bit.”

De Beck, who has criticized the superintendent in recent weeks for giving elected trustees too little voice in the running of the district and his fellow board members for not standing up to the superintendent, said the timing of the budget only further illustrated his grievances.

“I think it’s part of the way this superintendent and his staff are working,” he said. “If the board gets edgy about it, [Cohn] will have to face it. And if the board doesn’t get edgy about it, then the superintendent can do whatever he wants.”

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