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Last night, voiceofsandiego.org and its partners convened a diverse panel of local education experts to discuss the past, present and future of the San Diego Unified School District.

The event was the fifth part of our series, Schools on the Brink, which we’ve been running in conjunction with NBC7 San Diego. It followed a four-part production of San Diego Explained, in which we broke down what’s at stake in local education, how the district got into its current financial mess, including the gambles that contributed to the crisis and the possible solutions for fixing the problem.

We sat down San Diego Unified school board members Richard Barrera and Scott Barnett, local parent and blogger Paul M. Bowers, teacher Dennis Schamp and Teresa Drew, founder of United Parents for Education, a grassroots group seeking to increase parent involvement.

Here are some highlights from the evening:

Solutions

Kicking off the forum, we asked all the participants to lay out their solutions to the crisis.

Barrera made one thing clear: If no additional revenue appears (and there’s little sign that any will) he and the board will not let the district fall into insolvency. School Superintendent Bill Kowba has laid out the cuts the district will need to make to stay afloat, Barrera said, and the board will just have to make those cuts, since the other option — insolvency — is untenable.

Not so, said Bowers, who described himself as “The Blow-Things-Up Guy.” Bowers said he believes letting the district go insolvent is the best solution.

Over the years, the district has proved that it can’t manage money properly, Bowers said. Insolvency would allow a state trustee to cleave into the waste and mismanagement at the district, he said.

That drew a spirited rebuttal from Barrera, who said a trustee would not be interested in the welfare or education of kids, but would just cut, cut, cut. That wouldn’t be good for anyone, he said.

Putting Off Negotiated Raises

Schamp told the audience he’s gotten a pink slip three times from the district. We asked whether he would be willing to give up pay increases that teachers negotiated back in 2010.

Schamp said his salary keeps his family just above the poverty level and expects the state to provide bigger solutions. He said the state needs to refocus its priorities to make sure enough money is available for education.

Incessant Cuts or a Revenue Bubble?

We showed the participants our own numbers as part of the forum. We spent the last few weeks collecting and analyzing data from the state Department of Finance and the district’s budget and compiled the following two charts, which we displayed on a screen for last night’s guests.

First, we showed this chart, which illustrates the precipitous drop in revenue at the school district since the 2007-2008 school year:

Then we showed the panelists this chart, which illustrates that the district’s revenue actually increased dramatically from the beginning of the decade to the 2007-2008 school year, when it peaked. This chart shows that between 2002 and 2012, district revenues dropped just 2.4 percent, hardly the huge cut we keep hearing about.

So, we asked the panelists, what are we looking at here?

Have we really slashed education spending, or did we just have a “bubble,” where spending on education rose during the boom years and is now sinking back down to a more normal level?

Unfortunately, that discussion never really got off the ground, since Barrera and Barnett refused to acknowledge our numbers. Both called into question the accuracy of our research, and neither could be convinced by our assurances that the numbers come directly from the district’s own budgets.

I’ll be delving into this more with the school board members soon.

Trust

Drew said a crucial stumbling block to reforming local education is that parents and the public don’t trust the school district.

People don’t trust the district’s numbers and don’t believe that the organization isn’t still beset by waste and mismanagement, she said.

Drew’s comments were greeted with applause from the crowd. Barnett acknowledged that there are still problems with the relationship between the school board and the public. He said that partly stems from the fact that the board has little faith in the information it gets from district staff.

Again and again, the board can’t get the information it wants from staff, Barnett said. That’s no way to run a huge enterprise like the school district, he said, and it’s something he said the school board is trying to improve.

He said the board doesn’t know how much the district spends on busing, or how many teachers have special education training.

Therein lies the problem, Bowers said: Until the district can show that it has its financial affairs in order, the public won’t trust it with more money.

Tough Love

Towards the end of the forum, I pointed out that most of the people in the room were in favor of some sort of tax increase to get more money into the state’s education system. I asked Barnett and Barrera whether insolvency and the cuts it would bring might serve as a wake-up call for San Diegans. And I asked whether that might actually lead to more San Diegans supporting tax increases to fund education.

Barrera thought that was a terrible idea. All it would do is split the local education system into haves and have nots, he said. Those wealthy enough to do so would send their kids to private schools, while other families would be left languishing in a failing school system, he said.

My idea didn’t get a lot of support from the rest of the panel, either.

Our partners, NBC7 San Diego, filmed the event and will be airing a story on it during the 6 p.m. newscast. Look out for it.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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