The San Diego Unified school board saw their estimated deficit for next school year drop again on Tuesday night — this time to roughly $80 million — just two weeks after the deficit was revised down from $180 million to $106 million. The change befuddled school board members who asked the San Diego Unified staff to explain the difference to them, sometimes with only limited success.

“I pride myself on being able to understand this stuff,” said school board member John de Beck. “And I’ve got to say, I’m baffled.”

Chief Financial Officer James Masias promised to return to the school board next time with more details on how and why the estimates had shifted. The changes included a $60 million increase in projected revenues, including an added $8 million in federal stimulus funding meant for students with disabilities and another $6.5 million in federal money for disadvantaged students, along with an added $34.7 million in expenses. The additional costs included another $6 million for telecommunications, which staffers said was for new fiber optic lines for planned technology upgrades in schools and would be partially offset by federal discounts for school technology, and an added $1.1 million in salaries for non-educators.

The board also began looking at forecasts for budgeting in 2010-2011, which must be included in financial reports due at the end of this month to the county office of education, to close an estimated $112 million deficit. School board member John Lee Evans called it “an academic exercise” that should not be taken too seriously by the public, which might panic at some of the potential cuts listed in the preliminary report, such as closing 16 elementary schools or eliminating librarians. Another trustee, Katherine Nakamura, countered that it was not an exercise, but rather a business plan for the future.

“We have a structural deficit in our budget and it’s not going to be solved by nibbling around the edges or turning this district inside out,” Nakamura said, hinting that unions would need to make concessions to close the gap as the district crafts its budget next year.

As another budget crisis looms, staffers and trustees are reviving the idea of a parcel tax, a flat per-parcel fee that voters would approve at the ballot box. Unlike a facilities bond, it could be used to pay for programs and employees. Spokesman Bernie Rhinerson said the school district is gathering bids for outside help in analyzing how much voters would be willing to pay and how many would support it. De Beck floated the idea of including a parcel tax in the calculations on its future budgets, along with a Plan B of cuts if the measure did not pass.


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