At Superintendent Cindy Marten’s recent press conference, reporters seemed genuinely surprised that she could present a balanced budget with some good news while filling a shortfall first estimated to be $106 million.
How is this possible after one board member has repeatedly said that the district is paying the price for years of financial mismanagement? What happened to one claim that the board’s earlier plan was a “ticking time bomb” destined to blow up right around now?
Such contradictions are not new. A few years ago, San Diegans 4 Great Schools, a group of philanthropists, business leaders, parents and others who wanted to remake the school board, railed that “public schools are failing” in San Diego, but last year the Broad Foundation found the district to be one of the top four urban districts in the nation.
So what is the truth about San Diego Unified’s budget? How did we get here? Since I joined the board six years ago, we have continuously faced massive and unprecedented budget cuts. At the same time we did not lose our focus on improving student achievement. We even dared to develop a plan, Vision 2020, to make us into a world-class school system. We balanced the budget every year and academic achievement kept going up. We realize that we still have a very long way to go to achieve success for all students in our district regardless of race, ethnicity, first language, disability or income level.
How did we do it? We started off with “good cuts.” We did away with millions of dollars of outside contracts and consultants and relied on our home team. We found greater efficiencies, such as increasing the minimum ridership on each school bus to reduce the transportation budget. But as the cuts continued, we had to reduce our staff. We significantly decreased the number of employees in the district. We limited layoffs as much as possible, because of the instability that it brings to students.
We survived with federal stimulus dollars, property sales and employee concessions. Property sales have been referred to as “selling Grandma’s jewelry to pay the rent.” I am happy to report that “Grandma’s jewelry” has produced a great return. Our Class of 2020 had a great experience in their first few years of school with small class sizes. Our Class of 2012 had relative stability in their high school years without major cuts in course offerings.
Secretaries, teachers, the superintendent and the Board of Education all took pay cuts. Every employee took a cut either in furlough days or a percentage salary reduction. The 2010 negotiation not only delayed pay raises, but included taking concessions in the meantime. This crucial fact is often omitted by our critics. Full implementation of the raises for teachers does not occur until the 2014-2015 school year. Our critics deride the overdue raises without acknowledging the money our schools gained through the concessions. No ticking time bomb has blown up.
Proposition 30 stopped the massive cuts to education, but the current plan does not reach the 2007 level of funding until 2020. After its passage we realized that state revenues would not catch up with our current level of service and class size for about three years. Would it make sense to make massive, disastrous cuts in the first two years after Prop. 30 and then put the system back together after the third year? No. We had to build a bridge.
Last year we realized that the only reasonable way to meet our budget shortfall was through employee attrition and property sales. At that time, I said that we needed to set up a school stabilization fund from the property sales for this unique three-year period.
For next year’s budget, Marten took a student-centered approach, which meant first looking at what was needed in the classroom and secondarily looking at how that affected adult employees. In her March proposal she indicated we would need an additional $30 million in property sales to balance the budget. I made clear that I could not support substantial additional property sales. It was the right thing to do in previous years. In an emergency you take extreme measures. We are no longer in such a dire situation. The whole point of the school stabilization fund was to be a temporary measure as we worked on closing the structural deficit.
The board approved an early retirement incentive this year as an alternative to disruptive layoffs. It was up to the superintendent to make the board’s plan work. Marten and her staff worked very closely to try to fill as many classroom vacancies with existing staff to lower ongoing expenses. By June she had reduced the additional property sales to $7.3 million. That may even go down further when last-minute changes to the state budget are reviewed in July.
As a board, we directed the superintendent to look as specifically as possible at how to balance the budget over a three-year period. In my first term I realized that it was impossible to plan more than one year at a time. Sometimes we even faced mid-year budget cuts. But this time, I did not want to approve an official one-year budget without knowing exactly how it would affect the next two years. Next year is the second year of the school stabilization plan. We can now reasonably say we are on track to eliminate the structural deficit over the next two years. We can then move into positive revenue territory.
This will allow the superintendent and the board to focus on educational improvement, rather than ongoing budget crises. Next year’s budget includes a full school year and avoids the instability of massive reductions in staff and programs. But it also makes a down payment on what is most important: reduction of class size in the early grades, beginning to re-open elementary libraries, preparing teachers for Common Core, expanding transitional kindergarten to all elementary schools, continuing with graduation coaches to make sure that the Class of 2016 is on track to meet the new requirements and a strong focus on K-1 literacy and English-language learners.
One sign of a successful budget: People pack the auditorium when they have complaints about the proposed budget. There was no packed auditorium for this budget vote. The board voted to approve the budget 5-0, the first time this has happened since I joined the board in 2008.
This forward-moving budget was possible for three major reasons:
• We had a board majority from 2008-2013 that listened to our constituents and voted to keep our schools stable and class sizes as low as possible by approving property sales and negotiating concessions from all employee groups;
• In 2012, Californians voted for a down payment for education funding through Proposition 30;and
• We have a brilliant superintendent who knows how to implement Vision 2020 with a laser focus on student learning, and who crafted a budget to achieve those goals.
John Lee Evans is a member of the San Diego Unified Board of Education.