The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education workshop on the looming budget crisis painted a bleak picture of the future for education in America’s Finest City on Tuesday evening. The auditorium was about one-third filled with concerned parents and two of the five Board members were absent as the district staff presented one report after another outlining options and suggested courses of action for the 2010-2011 budget.
You have to give the Board of Education credit for coming to grips with the problem. They’ve held five “town hall” style forums, demanded that system administrators give them more real numbers and posted enough documents explaining their situation online so that even a Fox News Anchorperson could figure out that the students in San Diego’s public schools are about to get shafted.
How shafted are they? The projected shortfalls in funding for next year range from $97 million (Sacramento finds a heart and shows integrity?) on the low end up to $222 million in the worst case scenario (Fail!). The uncertainty over the funding levels stems from two circumstances, both of which are centered in the hallowed halls of government in Sacramento. First, Gov. Schwarzenegger has yet to submit a proposed budget for next year, so local school boards are in the dark as to what plans exist for coping with the decreases in State revenues triggered by the nation’s near-economic collapse in 2008. Secondly, the State Legislature has a long and sordid history of finding ways and means of shifting monies mandated for education to other causes.
So what does getting shafted mean for San Diego’s students? Coming on the heels of $183 million in funding cuts over the last two years, the list of proposed cuts runs deep and wide. High school sports, magnet programs, school buses, arts programs, librarians, nurses and all non-Federally mandated programs will be gone. At least five schools will be closed, Vice Principals will be eliminated, teachers will have cuts in pay and benefits, and class sizes will be increased. And all of this doesn’t even begin cover the deficit, even after deep cuts in the size of the District’s administrative staff. That’s some kinda shafted!
Just over two decades ago California voters approved Proposition 98, which mandated (through a complex set of formula that only a Google algorithm writer could love) basic funding levels for education. This initiative came about in response to public concerns that were triggered by budget dilemmas posed by an earlier law (Proposition 13) that limited property taxes. To make a long story short, those mandated funding levels for education have been ignored, manipulated and sometimes simply looted early and often in the dungeons of the witches brew-pub that masquerades as the embodiment of will of the people in Sacramento.
The potential bright spot on the horizon is that 2010 is an election year. A report by the School Board’s legislative analyst at Tuesday’s meeting noted that area law makers have noted increased voter concern about education budgets and are at least going through the motions of appearing concerned. Some have even volunteered to sponsor legislation. This means that there are a few folks writing letters, emailing and calling. There need to be more letters, emails and phone calls. Some of these lawmakers will even be in San Diego in the coming weeks enjoying a holiday break. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you. Here’s the link for contact info.
There is a very clear line in the sand that you as a voter can draw when engaging with elected officials in discussing the merits of education funding: The will of the electorate in passing Proposition 98 MUST be respected. It’s that simple. No excuses, delays, or suspensions will be accepted.
Having said all this, there are just a couple of things that bothered me at the Board of Ed workshop. I know that the teacher’s union (despite the U-T’s propaganda machine) isn’t at the root of this budget crisis. And I know that the Board’s Central office staff has already been substantially (to 2001 levels) reduced. But with all these smart people running around, why the hell does has it taken this long for the San Diego Unified District to figure out where their money’s going? I heard Board members praising staff for—finally—coming up with expenditure numbers that were so basic that should have been available years ago. (Supposedly they got new software.)
And then there’s all this hoopla about the Board adopting Priority Based Budgeting, which they sort of did at Tuesday’s meeting. Google it and you’ll discover that this is another fine idea from the flat-earthers that have insisted that a flat tax is the solution to all government’s woes. I wish the Board luck with that idea. I guess we should all just feel lucky that San Diego Unified’s looking seriously at their budget for a change.
As I’ve said before, I do have a horse in this race. My daughter attends the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet school whose wonderful programs are very threatened by all the budget cutting mania. Furthermore, I am a product (Point Loma High, 1968) of public education in San Diego, an experience that has profoundly shaped my life. If it hadn’t been for a counselor who saw abilities and aptitudes in me (that I was certainly unaware of) and a couple of English teachers (who demanded more of me), I would have never connected with the writer inside of me. I might have ended up being a politician, or, worse, a lawyer. [Editor: there’s always the lawyer joke – people joke about lawyers until they need one.]
I’ve seen first hand what a failed education system looks like. I lived in the US Virgin Islands for much of the last decade. The schools lost their accreditation after years of neglect. The halls of learning too often became no more than breeding grounds for ignorance, crime and wasted lives. The buildings were rat infested and leaked when it rained. An entire generation has been left behind to rot. And it all started with a bunch of self-serving elected officials who couldn’t be bothered to see the importance of public education. In the Virgin Islands it was all about lining their own pockets. Here in California there are also people out there lurking in the shadows that actually want public education to fail. It’s not too late. But the clock is ticking.