One thing I missed while I was gone was the move to “priority-based budgeting” at San Diego Unified. What the heck does that mean? We got a glimpse of how it will work last night. Here are the basics:

Instead of choosing from a menu of possible budget cuts, the school board will come up with a list of philosophical priorities. Some early ideas include “a broad-based curriculum,” “safe and secure environment,” and “class size,” among others.

That’s as far as the school board has gotten. Next week, the school board will narrow the list. They might also decide which priorities are more important, giving more weight to some ideas than others.

School district staff will group programs or activities under those categories and put a price tag on them. “Reducing the achievement gap,” for instance, could include paying for Advanced Placement exams for students, summer school and credit recovery, which allows students to make up failed classes.

Then the budget wizards will build a spending plan. They’ll start with the basics — things that are legally required or simply necessary to operate the schools. Then they’ll add the programs that fall under the priorities chosen by the school board. If it pencils out, their work is done.

But if paying for everything the board prizes is too much, it has to go back and narrow its list of priorities. If it has money to spare, it can fund more of its priorities.

Talking about what schools want, versus what they should cut, sounds like a kinder, gentler way of budgeting. But clearly, this won’t be simple. Board member John de Beck called it “cockamamie.”

It’s a lot harder to figure out where, exactly, each program should fit than it is to rattle off a list of cuts and their costs. For instance, de Beck added, “Don’t hurt kids” to the list of possible priorities. I’m really curious to see what price the school district can put on that, if any. This is subjective stuff.

Board President Richard Barrera said it wasn’t about avoiding choices — it was a better way of making them. While the school board might not be talking about cuts, this way of budgeting still means that something has to go.

“The bottom line will be that any programs, personnel that aren’t tied to the mandates or the priorities will be unfunded,” said Phil Stover, interim chief special projects officer.


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