It’s mid-February again, and there are three things that are true harbingers of this season; no more football, the media gushing over Valentines Day, and the SDUSD School Board confronting the realities of yet another budget shortfall. Andy Cohen covers football around here and City Beat did a great job with their conveniently timed “Sex Edition”, so I’m left with the agonies of the education beat.
School Board meetings this time of year tend to be well attended, and last Thursday night’s gathering was no exception. For the fourth year in a row, San Diego’s schools are facing yet another Sacramento funding shortfall. This year’s revenue challenges mean that previously unthinkable cuts are now part of the “moderate” strategy being considered by the Board of Trustees. The legal requirement that the Board give higher-ups at the regional and State level an advance peek at its budget planning and the contractual obligation that employees be notified of potential layoffs by mid-March sets the scene for what has become an annual ritual: parents, students and employees queuing up to beg for their programs not to be on this year’s chopping block.
The School District’s Normal Street headquarters were ringed with TV trucks, and cameramen jockeyed for position near the dais as the Superintendent and his staff presented an overview of their recommendations for the budget under two different scenarios. Scenario One represented the present version of the State’s financial plan; adding up to about $120 million in cuts from current funding levels. (Under this plan over 500 teachers will lose their jobs, along with another 800 non-teaching employees.) Scenario Two represented the wishful thinking that California voters will allow continuance of several “temporary” taxes in an election to be held in the late spring; it adds up to a mere $60 million in cuts.
And then there’s Scenario Three, which neither the School Board nor the staff at the district was willing to address at this meeting. It’s the Lord Voldermort budget, as in the evil villain in the Harry Potter series, the one that no one dares speak of, lest it be awakened from its slumber in the netherworld. Apparently this budget is what happens if the legislature decides to suspend Proposition 98 (which mandates a minimal spending level for education) and decides not to pay the IOU’s they’ve issued to the State’s schools over the past few years. One suggested idea for coping with this contingency has been to simply cut the school year by one month; another whispered notion is that the school board would resign en masse and leave the problems to the State Board of Education to resolve.
After roughly an hour of acronyms being bandied about—FTE’s = Humans, VAPA = Music, & OCILE has something to do with lizards–, it was time for the main event. School board meetings are probably the closest thing we get to real democracy around town, as anybody can simply sign up & speak–no campaign contributions or elite selection panels required. After quickly looking through the large pile of sign up slips, Board President Richard Barrera decreed a one minute limit per speaker for this meeting. There was an audible groan in the crowd as many with longer oratories in mind pondered just what they should say with their sixty seconds of fame.
Over the next two hours speaker after speaker pled their case to the Board. Librarians, landscapers and counselors all took the microphone to insist that their presence was critical in educating San Diego’s children. Parents, teachers and principals came to talk about the impact of increased class sizes and reductions in special programs. A handful of actual students spoke their piece. And there was the singing nurse, who riffed on “My Favorite Things” (Sound of Music) as a way of letting the Board know about all the important stuff that school nurses do. Through nearly a hundred speakers, the Board of Trustees did their best to seem attentive and sympathetic.
The budget process leading up to this meeting was a little different this year than in the past. Schools were given a basic budget and a “X factor” budget, wherein it was up to the administrators in consultation with the teachers and parents, to decide on which beyond basic services they wanted. For the most part, they opted for keeping higher numbers of teachers; other things like nurses, music and arts programs were considered less critical. (This is a really simplified explanation of what occurred; please go here if you want more detail)
The upshot of this new budgeting process was that the decisions were largely already made by the time this (proposed—it’s finalized in June) financial plan was presented. In order for the School Board to change the game plan, they would have to overrule the local schools, and any program added would have to result in another program being cut. None of the speakers made any suggestions as to what programs they’d like to see cut in order for their line up to receive funding.
Although several Board members (notably Scott Barnett) made comments at the end of the public testimony that there had to be a “better way”, it’s unlikely that much will change within the confines of the current proposed budget. The fact is that nobody knows what will happen between now and the “drop dead” date for submitting a real budget. Governor Brown’s plans for a special election will require a two-thirds vote of the legislature, meaning he needs a handful of Republicans to vote his way. One potential deal for those votes being discussed via the local grapevine is that Brown will capture those votes by agreeing to a “mail-in only” election, a move that could doom restoring school revenues because the electorate would skew more conservative.
It’s a tough time to be involved in education, as a parent (my kid’s magnet school is taking it in the teeth), a student (sorry, no arts & music for you) or an educator (just teach to the dammed test). At least they get a chance to be heard; even if it was only for a minute. That’s a lot better than the decision making process that occurred with regard to potential funding for the football stadium by Nathan Fletcher and his cronies.