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I just chatted with San Diego Unified school board member John de Beck about the school district’s new user-friendly budget, which I wrote about today. Parents and employees have lauded the new format as more readable than last year’s cryptic budget, even if the news inside is tough — a $43 million cut from the 2007-2008 school year’s spending.

“It’s a pretty book,” de Beck said. “It doesn’t change the situation any, but we’ve got a nice pretty budget book.”

De Beck was positive about the new format, but he noted that some figures need fleshing out so the average reader can understand the data.

For instance, the new budget includes spending for individual schools, and calculates per-pupil spending at each school. The numbers vary significantly between schools: Normal Heights Elementary receives $8,407 per student, while Oak Park Elementary receives only $5,749.

The differing numbers could be attributable to different programs, different federal funding for disadvantaged children, or even different teacher pay, because more senior (and better-paid) teachers tend to cluster at schools in more affluent areas. But those factors are invisible to the reader, who could easily compare the numbers and conclude that foul play is afoot.

“I honestly believe that the raw number has some dangerous conclusions in it,” de Beck said. “It opens up the arguments — and that’s part of the value of this budget book. But it could easily be misunderstood.”

Unlike last year, when trustees initially rejected the budget as tardy and unclear, de Beck expects the school board will pass the budget today.

EMILY ALPERT

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