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The San Diego Unified school board decided tonight what to spare as it cobbles together its budget, setting priorities for what should be funded first. (Confused? Read our explainer on what the heck the school board is doing with its budget.) It used a simple tool: Dots.

Each school board member got a sheet of 25 brightly colored dot stickers to cast their votes for different values, from cutting the dropout rate to keeping the school year intact. Staffers added up the dots to determine which priorities would rank highest. The top six results were:

  • Raising the achievement level of all students, including gifted kids, English learners and students with disabilities (19 votes)
  • A full curriculum including art, music, athletics, career technical education, programs in Old Town and Balboa Park, activities and classes that will make kids competitive for college admission and eligible for the University of California system (16 votes)
  • Diversity, integration and school choice, such as magnet schools (14 votes)
  • A safe and supportive environment including vice principals, police, counselors, nurses and instructional supplies (13 votes)
  • Maintaining current class sizes (12 votes)
  • Classroom technology to help children learn (10 votes)

Lesser priorities included reducing class size (six votes), staff training (two votes) and retaining all staff (five votes), along with more abstract ones like “Don’t hurt kids. Instruction comes first,” which got five votes.

Now it gets tricky. School district staffers are going to try to figure out which programs and expenses fall under those top priorities and how much they cost. And the school district has to make sure it funds all the basics first, such as the minimal things needed to run the district or comply with California law.

“I certainly never intended this process to be something that allows us to escape from the reality that we have a budget problem,” said school board President Richard Barrera. Instead, he praised it as a more logical way to build the budget that would be valuable even if funding was flush.

Not everyone was sold on the idea. “I think the exercise was fun,” said school board member John de Beck. “But I don’t think it’s going to get us to the cuts we need to make.”

And others seemed frustrated with the complex process. Leticia Munguia, a labor relations representative for the union that represents custodians, bus drivers and other noneducators, pushed the board to make decisions soon and keep ferreting out waste to find more savings, instead of talking solely about priorities.

“The reality is that decisions are going to need to be made on staff,” Munguia said. “And the longer you wait, the harder it is on the rank and file.”

Interim Superintendent Bill Kowba cautioned that budgeting this way will take time. Some top employees will need to be pulled from their ordinary work to help craft the budget, he said, possibly for as many as three days out of the week. They plan to bring their work back to the board to keep building the budget on Feb. 2.

— EMILY ALPERT

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