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The San Diego Unified school board narrowly decided last night to allot more money per student to smaller schools as it revamps its budget. The debate danced around a key issue: Small schools typically cost more to run, per pupil, than larger ones. Can the school district still afford to run them at all?

The school board had to make this choice because it’s using a different way to fund San Diego Unified schools this year, one that leaves school sites to choose between counselors, vice principals and special teachers for gifted students, the arts and magnet programs and other added staff.

Schools will be guaranteed a principal and the minimum number of teachers, along with some services from the central office, like police and basic nursing services. But the rest is up to them. Each school will get a kitty of money.

Doing so is meant to give schools more power over their fates, part of the grassroots reform the San Diego Unified board has pushed for. If counselors or art teachers end up being cut, it will be the schools — not the school board — that make those decisions as San Diego Unified stares down an estimated $120 million deficit.

San Diego Unified created a funding formula that would give small elementary schools 50 percent more money per pupil than typical elementary schools, 25 percent more than the largest ones. It would also give more to small middle and high schools than larger ones. To create the formulas, it built minimum budgets for each kind of school and translated them into dollars.

The idea was that since smaller schools cost more to run per pupil, the school district should recognize that reality and continue to fund them more heavily. It costs more per student for a small school to have a secretary, for instance, because it has fewer students for the same cost.

But giving more money to smaller schools also means giving less to larger ones. Johnson Elementary stood to get roughly $60,000 less under the plan than if all elementary schools were just given the same amount of money per student.

School board member Kevin Beiser said any parent who looked at it would think it was unfair that one student seems to be worth more than another. But Superintendent Bill Kowba said that the reality is the district has different kinds of schools — with different costs.

The school board initially deadlocked on the plan. Beiser and Shelia Jackson voted against it; Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans voted for it. Scott Barnett abstained, saying that to make the decision, the board needed to discuss whether they should keep small, more expensive schools open or not.

San Diego Unified has repeatedly raised the unpopular idea of closing small schools, then dropped it because they were unconvinced that the savings were worth the anguish. The school district is again forming a committee this year to look at the possible savings and which schools should be closed, if any.

Faced with a stalemate, Beiser ultimately decided to change his vote so that principals would at least know what allocations to start budgeting with. The plan to give more to smaller schools passed.

Under the current plan, small elementary schools will get $594 per student while larger ones get $396, small high schools get $911 per student while large ones get $733 per student, and so on.

The basic budget for schools will be cut between 8 percent and 9 percent. But for some individual schools, the new formulas mean much deeper cuts. Whitman Elementary will take a 24 percent cut. Alternative schools will take a 24 percent cut, a dramatic drop for schools that serve struggling students.

One important thing to keep in mind: These budgets do not include supplemental money, such as federal money for disadvantaged students or funds for English learners, that some schools get for students with specific needs. That could blunt the impact of the cuts for some schools.

Got questions about this new way of budgeting and what it means? Post them here on the blog or send me a message on Twitter. I’ll try to respond to common questions on the blog.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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