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Friday, June 20, 2008 | In a contentious year marked by threats of massive budget cuts, there’s a rare snippet of good news on San Diego Unified’s new budget: It’s understandable.

The school district has redesigned its dense $2 billion-plus budget to be more readable to the average person. The result is a glossy binder that provides a clearer accounting of each program, department, and even individual schools. Parents, taxpayer advocates and school employees called it a vast improvement over budgets past.

School board members are scheduled to vote on the budget Friday following a public hearing on the 300-plus page document. A year ago they initially rejected the budget, complaining they had too little time to review the document and could barely understand it. Critics said the budget lacked basic elements such as staffing projections, department-by-department spending, and even a table of contents.

“You could see where money was coming from, but you couldn’t understand how it was allocated,” said Cindy McIntyre, president of the San Diego Unified Council of Parent Teacher Associations. “This is so much easier for the public to look at.”

The budget explains the different categories of funds San Diego Unified receives, outlines the budgeting process, and isolates details about specific programs or schools. Readers can see how much Cadman Elementary spends on security, or compare how much the school district spends on supplies for health classes versus the arts. Enthusiasm for the revamped budget has even dampened criticism of the budget’s delayed release.

“You don’t have to be a government finance expert to read and understand it,” said Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, who decried last year’s budget as one of the poorest-prepared she had seen.

Overshadowing the budget makeover is California’s financial crisis, which put school spending front and center in discussions at San Diego Unified. The school district initially expected an $80 million shortfall and planned nearly 1,000 teacher layoffs — a proposal that was moderated to a $53 million cut and roughly 200 teacher layoffs in May after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released his revised budget. Overall, San Diego Unified has budgeted for roughly 1,300 fewer positions for next year, including hundreds of non-teaching jobs such as classroom aides and managers in the central office.

The new 2009 budget is $53 million smaller than the 2008 budget passed last June. But because budgets change during the school year, it’s $43 million smaller than what was actually spent during 2008.

Spending on salaries and benefits has dropped due to layoffs, despite the raises approved last fall. But some costs have risen: Three new schools are opening, imposing $3.1 million in new bills for staff and supplies. New graduation coaches are joining high schools at a $1.3 million cost. And a plan to keep underachieving students from being promoted to grade to grade without improvement — or held back without true help — is billed at $2.2 million.

Even the new budget is contingent on the final budget signed by the California Legislature, which has rarely been released by its supposed deadline of June 30. School districts must scramble to revise their budgets within 45 days of the state closing its books. That uncertainty means that the budget is malleable even after the school board approves it. Trustee Shelia Jackson called it “preliminary.”

“This book will be outdated in a heartbeat,” said Chief Financial Officer Bill Kowba. “It’s probably outdated now.”

But some changes are permanent. Contracts expire on June 30 for many terminated employees, complicating the rehire process if San Diego Unified opts to restore positions to the budget later in the year, labor representatives said.

And the new and improved budget isn’t perfect. Understanding specific changes in the budget was difficult for Ethel Larkins, president of one of the classified workers’ unions.

For instance, the budget lists the categories of changed funds, but provides limited information on what was actually altered. One item titled “Charter Schools” says simply that San Diego Unified has 35 charter schools, and lists a $112.6 million cost to the general fund. What changed isn’t immediately clear to the reader. San Diego Unified recently approved two new charter schools, but their estimated combined cost in lost attendance at district-run schools was less than $2 million.

“It’s still not simplified enough,” Larkins said. “We appreciate what they’re doing, but there’s still a long ways to go.”

Larkins was also frustrated that she had only a few days to review the thick document. San Diego Unified posted the budget online Tuesday, three days before the school board is scheduled to vote on the plan. The delay violates the school district’s own policies requiring all relevant reports to be made public seven days before a meeting. A year ago, the school board refused to pass the budget because of its late release and incomprehensible format, then reversed course and approved it a day later without changes, saying that too little time remained before the June 30 deadline to significantly alter the budget.

The best way to publicly air the budget is to hold a hearing, then actually vote on the document at a later meeting, said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, which consults school districts on management and finance. But few school districts do so.

A quick survey of school districts in San Diego County and other large California districts revealed that few post their budgets much earlier than San Diego Unified. Sweetwater Union High School District posted its draft budget a week before its board approved it; Poway Unified will post its budget Friday, three days before trustees vote on the document. Long Beach Unified publicized its budget four days before adoption, the same time span provided by Los Angeles Unified, which plans to post its budget online Friday.

“It’s like a poker game, and they hide their cards until the last minute,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. In San Diego Unified, “… this is the same board that was all up in arms last year over not getting the budget in time.”

Other pressures delayed the budget’s release this year, Kowba said. Reformatting the budget to be more readable took “hundreds of hours,” he said, and the radical difference between the state’s January budget estimates and the May update sent staffers scrambling to rewrite their budget. More input poured in from outside: Staffers held six budget workshops to gather public input on spending, he said. Last year, there were none.

“Let’s face it — when you start from absolutely zero, it takes plenty of time,” Kowba said. “It’s a work in progress. But it’s also a new and improved product. And it was something that we needed to do.”

The school board also pushed its June budget meeting four days earlier than originally planned, squeezing the finance staff to get the budget finished in time, Kowba said. One former critic is sympathetic.

“You have a new superintendent. You have a state budget which suddenly has this major revise May 15, and then you have a deadline to redo everything. I’m not terribly surprised” that the budget was released late, said Scott Barnett, a former Taxpayers Association president now consulting the political campaign to help pass a facilities bond for San Diego Unified in November.

“I’m not the guy who makes excuses for bureaucrats, but this isn’t something you want to rush,” he said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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