Statement: “For the last 10 years at Central we’ve lost and lost and lost millions of dollars and I have still been charged with having to provide a quality education to the children at that school with less resources,” soon-to-be San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten said at an April 30 Voice of San Diego event.

Determination: Barely True

Analysis: San Diego Unified schools have endured a series of cutbacks in recent years.

Soon-to-be Superintendent Cindy Marten experienced many of them as a teacher and then as principal at Central Elementary School in City Heights.

In late April, Voice of San Diego hosted a conversation with Marten to talk about her time at Central and her plans for the school district.

VOSD CEO Scott Lewis asked Marten whether she felt the district receives enough cash to effectively serve students.

For the last decade, Marten said, Central lost millions of dollars due to reduced government investment but that she was still tasked with providing a quality education to students.

We decided to fact check Marten’s statement about those cuts because it could provide a window into how the district’s financial woes played out at an individual school.

Last month, we requested Central Elementary’s budget breakdowns over the last 10 years. District staffers were only able to share school budget information going back to 2005 – they said a new budget system made it difficult to access earlier information.

According to the data, Central Elementary’s total budget actually increased since 2005. The school’s budget totaled about $5.4 million in 2005 and reached roughly $6.1 million this year.

But we looked closer at the portion of the budget an individual principal has most control over, sometimes referred to as instructional core funding. Marten played a key role in the budget process from 2008 through 2012, when she served as principal at Central. She previously worked as a vice principal and teacher at the City Heights school.

“The general feeling of the principal trying to lead a school over the last 10 years was each year you get your budget from the district and (look at) the resources that you can use to design your instructional program,” Marten said. “Every year, there were less of those.”

Records provided by the district show Central Elementary received nearly $1.8 million in instructional funds in 2005. Many came as a result of the school’s significant population of students from low-income families. This cash allowed the school to provide specialized training for teachers, support the school’s gifted program and improve instruction for students with limited English proficiency.

This year, Central received just $667,270 of such funds.

That’s more than a 60 percent drop.

Instructional allocations followed a different trajectory than the rest of the budget during that period.

Here’s a look at how that decrease compared with the rest of the district budget from 2005 to 2012.

Marten’s claim: that Central has lost millions of dollars over the last decade.

But despite the steep drop in instructional funding from 2005 to 2013, the total loss only amounted to $1.1 million.

Debbie Foster, the school district’s director of budget operations, argued the net decrease doesn’t reveal the complete story.

A spreadsheet provided by the school district broke down the losses this way:

You’ll notice the district compared each year’s instructional funding to the amount Central received in 2005, coming up with losses each year. They did that by subtracting the funding provided each year from the $1,770,670 allocated in 2005 and then adding up all the losses. Using that method, the district’s spreadsheet indicated the school had seen a $7.2 million drop in such funding over the last nine years, far larger than the net decrease in available cash.

This is faulty math for multiple reasons. First of all, basic subtraction tells us that $1.7 million minus $667,270 does not equal $7.2 million — and claiming as much paints a far different picture than the actual story of funding that steadily dropped from $1.7 million to $667,270 over a nine-year period. And Marten referred to cuts over the past decade, so selecting 2005 as the baseline would be arbitrary. 

Any documentation showing available instructional funding before 2005 would be far more relevant.

Foster tracked down a budget document from the 2002-2003 school year that breaks down similar spending during that time. She provided a breakdown of cash she believed would have flowed to the instructional needs Marten cited.

Foster estimated that the funding that’s since been eliminated totaled more than $1.1 million, though she said some potential streams of cash appeared to be missing from the budget records.

About 45 percent of the decrease Foster described came from the demise of the Blueprint for Student Success, a district program that mostly dissolved after former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin left the post in 2005.

In 2002, Central Elementary received more than $494,000 to support Bersin’s controversial initiative. The reform program aimed to improve test scores by adding coaches to help teachers, increasing the school year at struggling schools and training teachers a specific method to educate students about reading.

Budget data from the 2003 and 2004 school years remains unavailable. But documentation that appears to show about $1.1 million more available instructional dollars for Central Elementary as of 2002 is worth noting.

Together, those losses would add up to about $2.2 million.

However, we don’t have the 2004 budget to verify the funding realities during the 10-year period Marten cited.

We dub a statement “barely true” when a claim contains an element of truth but is missing critical context that may significantly alter the impression the statement leaves.

That ruling fits here because while it’s clear Central’s instructional budget has fallen significantly, it hasn’t amounted to millions in cutbacks.

The claim that Central has “lost and lost and lost millions of dollars” indicates that the school saw more than a $1.1 million or even a $2 million decrease in funds.

Furthermore, the tone of Marten’s statement could also lead one to conclude that the school’s total budget decreased when only a portion of it truly fell.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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