Earlier this week, the San Diego Unified school board decided to go about its budget cuts in a completely different way, building the budget from scratch instead of deciding what to cut from an existing budget loaded with programs and people.

It’s called zero-based budgeting. School district staff balked at the idea of doing it by mid-December, the deadline for a financial report on balancing the current school year budget. But the board majority said they wanted it done eventually. The question is whether it can happen quickly enough — and produce enough savings — to be a worthwhile step in the middle of coping with the budget crisis.

So what does it take to get to zero? I got an interesting e-mail from Florence Samuels in Santee, who wrote that she worked for the county engineer in the 1970s when it switched to zero-based budgeting. She wrote a manual to help do it:

Once program managers knew exactly what to do and how, plus realizing their excuses no longer were valid, we got the results we needed — budgets that held people accountable. This also flushed out the fat because it was very difficult to hide money that had nothing to support its expenditure. … Something is going on and the school board is clueless.

An alternate viewpoint comes from Rick Knott, a former San Diego Unified finance chief and consultant, who sent an analysis to school board member John de Beck. Zero-based budgeting “cannot be used for the entire budget,” he wrote. “It works over activities the district has some discretion over.”

He also noted that it tended to be time-consuming and couldn’t be done quickly. And if other big changes were underway at the same time, “it is highly unlikely the organization can support both at the same time,” Knott wrote.

In an e-mail, De Beck wrote that the staffers “looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a 80 mph truck [Tuesday] night” when the idea arose.

“I would go for this if we started it as a plan for 2012! But for now we are mired in our own trap!” he wrote.

Got thoughts on zero-based budgeting? Post your comments here or e-mail me at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

EMILY ALPERT

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