The San Diego Unified school board thought it had closed the budget gap for midyear cuts — slashing money from this school year — and could move on to balancing the books for next school year. It had already found more than $33 million in savings to solve the expected problem, basing its plans on estimates from state lawmakers and others in Sacramento.

But new numbers calculated from the final budget passed by state lawmakers show that the budget shortfall is wider than originally anticipated by San Diego Unified staffers — $46 million instead of $33 million for the current school year. And it will require San Diego Unified to cut from specific funds that are earmarked for specific purposes, in addition to cutting from the general moneys that can be used for any school expense.

School board members are under the gun to send a financial report that shows they can balance their budget to the San Diego County Office of Education by March 15. And they still have to figure out how to balance the books for next school year, when Superintendent Terry Grier estimates the shortfall will total more than $71 million.

“We don’t have unlimited time anymore,” said school board President Shelia Jackson, after staffers explained the problem. “And the rules of the game changed.”

School board members had hoped that if the government gave them the flexibility to use those earmarked dollars any way they wanted, it could help them manage the cuts. Now those same dollars have been cut. Some have been made available to use for any purpose, but others still have strings limiting how they can be spent.

“They’ve basically taken your flexibility away from you,” Grier said.

That means the school board will not only have to find more money to close the current gap, but it also has to ensure that it makes the cuts in the designated categories. Staffers have created a plan that they say will work, taking unspent money from those earmarked funds that were made flexible. Many of those moneys are already lying unspent after the school district froze spending, staffers said.

But board members complained that it provided little information about what impact those cuts would have on schools, and asked for more information to help them decide whether to adopt the plan. The school board will take up the issue Saturday.


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