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Everything is rosy in San Diego Unified, except when it’s not.

Earlier this month, after the school board passed a budget, trustee John Lee Evans thumbed his nose at critics.

In Evans’ crosshairs was his colleague Scott Barnett, who has aggressively opposed the district’s habit of selling property to pay the bills. Along the way, Barnett coined such colorful analogies as selling grandma’s jewelry to pay rent.

But, Evans wrote, “I am happy to report that ‘Grandma’s jewelry’ has produced a great return,” because younger students didn’t see classes sizes balloon and high schools didn’t see major cuts to the classes they were offered.

“What happened to one claim that the board’s earlier plan was a ‘ticking time bomb’ destined to blow up right around now?” Evans wrote.

But to say that the bomb never detonated overlooks the trade-offs and sacrifices made over the last few years.

Evans isn’t the only school board or district staff member to take this approach. His commentary follows a template of sorts the district has established: The facts aren’t objectively false, but the message trumpets the good news while minimizing the struggles.

Evans told me he sees it this way: He and other school board members don’t hesitate to point out concerns. But even as the district has shown progress, there’s been a constant drumbeat from critics who paint San Diego Unified as a tragic disappointment.

In turn, the district has countered with positive messages that showcase achievements.

“It can become a self-fulfilling prophesy,” Evans said. “If the message is that public schools are failing, then more people start to believe that and more money is taken away from schools. That, in turn, can affect students even more.”

But perhaps most damaging – and harder to quantify – is the distrust and confusion that grows from hearing only one-dimensional messages.

There are some stark contradictions and stubborn realities in the district’s PR strategies. I’ve tried to capture the most important ones here.

Claim: That budget “ticking time bomb” never went off.

Reality: In 2011, in the midst of the recession and ensuing cuts to the school district budget, we wrote that the district was gambling that the state’s economy would turn around and Sacramento would send more money to San Diego Unified.

The bomb did go off, but some big things happened that limited its damage.

Teachers eventually agreed to delay expected across-the-board pay raises, but those bills were set to come due before the district had the money to pay them.

The state raised taxes through Proposition 30, which delivered extra money to schools. But a lot of that money in San Diego Unified would be set aside to make good on the pay raises teachers were promised.

The district raised taxes to relieve its budget of major maintenance responsibilities. And it desperately sold land – some of which was iconic, highly valued property whose sales will reshape neighborhoods.

All of that blunted the bomb’s damage. But it wasn’t enough. Next year even larger deficits are projected. That’s true even though the economy has steadily improved.

Maybe a better comparison than the bomb would be a leaky dam, one that the district patched with one-time revenues.

Claim: San Diego Unified School District continues to rank near the top of large city school systems across the country.

In December, after the U.S. Department of Education released the Nation’s Report Card, San Diego Unified trumpeted its position near the top of a list of urban school districts. Superintendent Cindy Marten attributed the ranking to the district’s culture of excellence and creativity.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, a fan Marten’s, took the praise a step further and called San Diego Unified the best urban district in the nation. San Diego Unified embraced the PR.

Reality: A closer look at the numbers shows the majority of San Diego Unified’s students still aren’t proficient in reading or math. The achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic counterparts is still a gaping wound.

Claim: San Diego Unified has the lowest dropout rate and second-highest graduation rate among California’s largest districts.

Reality: It’s true that the district has the lowest dropout rate out of the districts to which it chose to compare itself. But it’s also true that the dropout rates for black and Latino students are 2.8 and 3.4 times higher, respectively, than it is for white students.

One expert from the California Dropout Research Project said that graduation rates are ultimately more important dropout rates.

And San Diego Unified’s graduation rates look less impressive when you consider that half of all students who graduated in 2013 lacked the classes they needed to enter University of California and California State University schools.

Claim: San Diego Unified was able to survive massive and unprecedented budget cuts without large-scale layoffs.

This statement’s been rolled out on various occasions, mostly as a way to say students across the district have had relative stability in their classrooms because the district was able to avoid massive layoffs.

Reality: As student enrollment dropped, and fewer teachers were needed at certain schools, the district has relied on an “attrition-based model.”  It means that as teachers retire or otherwise quit, the district doesn’t replace them or replaces them with lower paid people, thereby lowering costs.

But missing the chance to make more strategic cuts resulted in class sizes going up in many schools across the district. And in the early weeks of the last school year, some teachers sat around in empty rooms waiting to be reassigned. All the while, they collected a paycheck.

In many cases, it was actually schools in middle-class neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the cuts. Those schools didn’t receive extra state and federal support that’s sent to high-poverty schools, and weren’t able to raise much private money through donations or external sources.

These schools were more likely to say goodbye to counselors and support staff, scramble to pay for school supplies or see their libraries close.

District leaders are making the seemingly contradictory claims that they need more money and yet schools are improving sufficiently and getting what they need.

♦♦♦

The district has the right – perhaps the obligation – to celebrate and share what’s working in San Diego Unified schools. But it also has an obligation to share what hasn’t worked.

Earlier this year, Scott Lewis wrote: “if we’re not willing to worry about what’s wrong, we’re denying ourselves the chance to celebrate when it goes right.”

Inherent in the district’s plan to create a quality school in every neighborhood is the understanding that some schools aren’t succeeding. Parents and district administrators understand this. They understand that, in tough fiscal times, difficult budget decisions come with trade-offs.

But the community cannot understand how or why schools aren’t working if the district isn’t transparent about the challenges.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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