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S.D. School Trustees Map Out Budget Dilemma

— San Diego Unified school trustees are urging county legislators to protect a pot of state education funding that could be used to help fix the state's money problems for next year.

Proposition 98 requires the state to set aside a certain amount of state education funding for public schools every year.

But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to propose lifting restrictions on that protected pot of money to fill a projected $21 billion budget deficit for next year.

If that happens, the San Diego Unified School District could face a state funding shortfall of up to $222 million.

The district has a $1 billion budget. Part of that is locked up in state-mandated education programs. About $700 million pays for teacher salaries, transportation and supplies. The possible cuts represent one-third of that unrestricted budget.

The district's new school board President Richard Barrera says unlike last year, the district will have to lay off teachers.

"There would be several hundred teachers that would be laid off in this worst case scenario," Barrera said. "We can do that but it still wouldn't help to balance the budget along with everything else."

Barrera says instead of planning for teacher layoffs, he wants the entire district to pressure lawmakers so they protect money from Proposition 98.

Meanwhile, trustees are also changing the way they build the district's spending plan for next year.

For years the school board has balanced its budget by picking from a list of options prepared by the district's finance department.

The new method offers a more philosophical approach to education finance that begins from the bottom-up. Its called priority based budgeting.

Trustee John Evans says it works when the community and the board come together and ask themselves what programs and initiatives are essential to improving student performance.

"What do we consider most important for public education?," Evan said. "We're going to start at the basis. We're going to fund as far as we can while at the same time we're working with the legislature to make sure we have adequate funding."

Evans says this approach allows for the district to determine the core things it needs to protect in the face of budget cuts. Before trustees relied on district staffers for that advice.

The Governor is expected to release the first version of the state's spending plan with cuts to education next month. The school board is working on a district plan in anticipation of the Governor's proposals.

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