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School Board President Discusses Budget Shortfall, Supt. Search


Why does the San Diego Unified School District board want to remake the district's budget from scratch? We speak to the school board president about the budget plan, the search for a new superintendent, and the district's decision not to go after Race To The Top federal education grants.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The San Diego School Board says it's got its priorities in order now, and can take on the daunting assignment of cutting more than $90 million from next year's budget. The board has decided on six spending priorities. And as the Board begins to build its pared down budget for next year, there are still major questions many parents in the district are asking. Those questions include: Will San Diego Unified join other major school districts in the state and apply for federal Race to the Top stimulus dollars? And, when is San Diego Unified going to begin looking for a new school superintendent? Joining me to answer the many questions facing the board during these challenging times, Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified School District's board of education, and, Richard, welcome to These Days.

RICHARD BARRERA (President, Board of Education, San Diego Unified School District): Thank you, Maureen. Pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Are you concerned about the school district’s new budget? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Let me start out with a sort of overview question, if I could, Richard.


CAVANAUGH: How is the school district budget looking for next year?

BARRERA: Well, it’s going to be very difficult. The school district, for the past two years, has faced almost $200 million in cuts from the state government. 75% of our funding for our local schools comes from the state government, so that’s been an enormous hit to our budget. Our budget is roughly about $1.2 billion. So we’ve taken about a 20% cut in the past 2 years and we’re looking at another budget deficit for this coming year, the ’10-’11 year, of between $75 million and $100 million, depending on how deeply we get cut again from the state. So, you know, it’s the goal, obviously, of the board and of the superintendent is to keep those cuts as far away from the classroom and as far away from the kids as possible. We’ve, you know, cut very deeply into our central administration, you know, especially over the last year, and I think we’ve had impacts, you know, that have been felt by kids but not as deeply as they could have been felt and that’s going to be our goal, you know, going forward but it’s going to be a challenge with the kind of cuts that we continue to face.

CAVANAUGH: Now the board decided to do something a little different this time as it faced these deficit and having to make more cuts.

BARRERA: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: You decided to sort of remake the budget from scratch and come up with a list of priorities. Tell us about that process.

BARRERA: Exactly. I think it’s a very important process. What the school district has done, you know, historically is you base next year’s budget on this year’s budget so if you get a little more money, you raise it a little bit, if you get cut, you, you know, you cut some things. But it’s always based on what are we doing now and we’ll just make minor adjustments, you know, to what we’re currently doing. And I think what we’ve said is, you know, in the middle of this crisis, we need to get very clear about what our priorities are and we need to build a budget from the ground up, making sure that the first thing that we do is fund those priorities that are most important to helping kids learn. And so what we did is we had a board discussion last week where we identified, as you said, six top priorities. Those include maintaining class size. It’s so important to not, you know, push class sizes up. It includes maintaining a full and balanced curriculum that includes music and arts and career technical education and, you know, things that really make the school experience worth it for students. It includes making sure that every student, no matter, you know, where they begin, is continuing to grow and achieve so if you have a student that’s coming into the district, you know, far behind, you know, maybe a student in special education, an English language learner, that student has to make growth, you know, over the course of the school year and so does the student who’s, you know, gifted and talented, that student has to make growth. So school has to continue to challenge each individual student in a way that they can grow over the year. We want to make sure that our choices for schools are available to continue to be available to parents and that we’ve got a strong magnet program that continues. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a safe and supportive environment in our schools, which means we’ve got to have the counselors, we’ve got to have the nurses, we’ve got to have the vice principals who often, you know, play a dual role of ensuring safety at the school and serve as an instructional leader for teachers. And we’ve made significant investments in what we call 21st century technology, a 21st century classroom, in our schools over the past couple of years and we need to keep that, you know, investment going. So those are where our priorities are and we’re now going through a process of saying, okay, what is necessary to meet those priorities? How much does it cost? And let’s make sure that we fund, you know, those priorities. And then let’s figure out, you know, where we are after that.

CAVANAUGH: Now as some priorities move up to the front…


CAVANAUGH: …and are acknowledged by the school board, there are other issues that sort of get down – pushed down, what are some of the areas that are not as important as you get together and make this budget for this coming semester?

BARRERA: Well, you know, and it’s always sort of a, you know, an easy target for folks because when you talk about the central administration – but I think what we need to do is, you know, continue to just make sure that the central administration is in a position that it’s supporting the needs of schools but is not driving the agenda, which I think has been, you know, the history in this district and in a lot of, you know, large urban school districts. You know, you have a lot of initiatives and ideas that are coming out of the central office in terms of developing new curriculum, developing new types of tests, you know, for students, developing ways to train teachers that may or may not be what teachers talk about as the way – as, you know, the things that they need professional development in. So I think, you know, we want our district to be very focused on the needs of the schools and not on the needs of the central administration, and so I think that’s where you’re going to continue to see, you know, some cutting.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Richard Barrera. He is president of the San Diego Unified School District's board of education. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call now. Anne is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Anne, and welcome to These Days.

ANNE (Caller, La Jolla): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning.

ANNE: I just have a quick question. I was wondering why in this year, like 2009-2010, we may not do something. It sounds kind of drastic by taking a couple of furlough days so that we can reduce the budget deficit for the 2010-11 school year because I know that the budget increase this year in its deficit due to some things that happened the prior year. So I guess my question is why not do a little bit more than just freeze spending, which I know you’ve done. Why not do a little bit more to take the pain out of next year?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Anne. How about furlough days?

BARRERA: Well, you know, it’s a good question. Furloughs, there are two issues, you know, associated with furloughs. One is when you talk about furloughs and I think you’re probably – Anne’s probably talking about furlough days for teachers and for, you know, the rest of the employees in the district, you’re talking about cutting days of school. And that really is something that I think, you know, when we talk about trying to keep the cuts away from the kids, reducing the number of days that kids are at school directly impacts kids. You know, I – The district that I represent tends to have schools with the highest percentages of, you know, students who are on free and reduced lunch, English language learners, students who often come to school in kindergarten with maybe a third of the vocabulary of students who may be in, you know, in Anne’s area, in La Jolla. And really what most people will tell you is we should be increasing, you know, the time that students are in school, you know, the number of days of school that – even the hours in the day and so to – so to cut school days, I think, does have a real, you know, impact on a lot of students. The other, you know, point about furloughs and anything that you talk about that affects, you know, our employees, those issues need to be negotiated; they can’t simply be imposed, you know, by the district. And we are, you know, working through a process. We’re working very hard right now at negotiating with our employees and I think we are going to need to see, you know, potentially across the board sacrifice from, you know, from all of our employees in the district as we go into the next year. But that’s, again, that’s a process that requires negotiation. I think it’s very important for our employees to see that we’re clear about what our priorities are and that we’re going to meet our priorities so that we’re not asking employees to make sacrifice in order for us to fund things like, you know, central office expenses that they think are not as necessary for kids. So, you know, it’s not that, you know, the concept of furlough days is off the table but furloughs has, you know, a direct impact on our students and if we can, you know, figure out other ways to get there, we’re going to go after that first.

CAVANAUGH: Well, another big story that’s been in the news is the fact that it seems the San Diego Unified is not going after the first wave of federal education grants. It’s called Race to the Top.


CAVANAUGH: It’s being made available through the Obama administration’s program. So I believe actually that this is the deadline, today’s the deadline for school districts to apply for Race to the Top funds. Are we going to do that, I mean, at the last minute? Or if not, why not?

BARRERA: Well, no, I – This is actually the deadline for the state…


BARRERA: …to make its application to the federal government. Here are the issues with Race to the Top. Race to the Top, a lot of people are – and, you know, understandably, people are saying, well, the district has, you know, a huge, you know, budget deficit, why not go for extra money? One thing to understand about Race to the Top is the money for Race to the Top is intended to support specific initiatives that would be – the money would be restricted, what we call restricted. In other words, we couldn’t take that money and use it to fill our budget gap. We would need to take that money and use it to buy things that we’re not currently spending money on. So it doesn’t help us from a budget perspective. In fact, there’s a bill that’s, you know, passed the House, the federal Jobs Bill, stimulus bill that if it passes the Senate intact would result in probably about $25 million to $30 million for our school district that could be used, you know, to do things like maintaining class size and maintaining arts and music and the things that we want to fund. So with Race to the Top, you know, I think it’s a little bit disingenuous for some – the way that some people, the governor and others, have described this as, you know, it’s a chance to get some extra money. It’s really not. Race to the Top is a series of ideas that’s coming out of the federal government about how to turn around what’s labeled as low performing schools. In San Diego, we’ve got 185 schools and the definition in the state’s plan under the state’s, you know, definition of which schools would qualify as low performing, there are about 8 in our district. And so the conversation really needs to be about how do you help those schools turn around and make sure that, you know, kids are, you know, are getting educated. The approach that we’re using is we’re going to those school communities, to parents and teachers and the principal and students, in the case of high schools, and we’re starting – we’re going to start conversations about what do you think are the most important things that we can do to make sure that this school succeeds going forward.


BARRERA: The problem that I have with a Race to the Top philosophy is that it assumes that there are a set of strategies to turn around a school that’s not based on a conversation with that school community, that’s based on, you know, theories that are frankly not proven out in research including you can close the school and have those students go to a different school, you can convert the school to a charter school or you could remove the principal and half the teachers and replace them with a new staff. Well, you know, those ideas might make sense in certain cases. They might not make sense in other cases. This morning, actually, at the school board we’re going to have a workshop where we’re – we’ve got a number of schools that have made significant gains over the past year especially that had been labeled low performing schools that have made significant gains and they’re going to come and they’re going to talk to us about, you know, what strategies have been effective for those schools. But one of the things that I hear, you know, from those schools is one of the keys is that they’ve had a principal and a core group of teachers and parents who have been on the same page for a number of years, have said this is the strategy that we think is important, and they’ve had a chance to follow it and have not been disrupted, you know, by the school district or by the state or the federal government and because of that stability they’ve had a chance to start to make significant gains. Under the Race to the Top plan, none of those schools would have been given that chance. They all would have been, you know, changed dramatically in some way. And the research, you know, particularly the Secretary of Education was the Superintendent of Public Schools in Chicago and he tried all of these theories and there’s been a big study by the University of Chicago and Harvard which has shown, you know, at best mixed results and in some cases, you know, the example, for instance, of closing a school and having those students go someplace else, those students have done worse in the schools that they’ve gone to. So, you know, so our district is not prepared to commit to, you know, untested, one size fits all strategies, which is what I think the Race to the Top, you know, legislation is asking school districts to commit to.

CAVANAUGH: We have a call.


CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear from Frank in El Cajon. Good morning, Frank. Welcome to These Days.

FRANK (Caller, El Cajon): Good morning. Good morning. I’d like to continue the conversation. San Diego Unified seems to be one of the few school districts in the state of California who is going to refuse funds from Race to the Top. My understanding of Race to the Top is it puts in strategies to help the schools get to the not – to the low performing areas, to help students read to age standard, to grade standard, helps students do math to grade standard, which is not happening in most – in many schools in San Diego Unified today.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the comment, Frank. And I want to add one more thing, too. There is – San Diego Unified, as I understand it, as Frank pointed out, is the only large school district in the state of California that is not applying for Race to the Top funds…

BARRERA: Yeah, but…

CAVANAUGH: …and also, critics say that the reason – one of the reasons is that there’s this linkage that happens in order to apply to teacher evaluations, to student test scores, and that you don’t want to go there. That you just don’t want to impose those restrictions on San Diego teachers.

BARRERA: Well, again, so it’s a couple of things. First to understand that over half of school districts in the state and in the county have not committed to be part of Race to the Top. And, frankly, you know, we’ve got a board, you know, with a variety of perspectives but all five of us said we’re not ready to commit to Race to the Top because the state asked our district, asked all districts to commit to Race to the Top before it even had a plan in place. So we don’t know if Race to the Top would end up actually costing us money. We know that the money itself is one-time money that, you know, what other districts are talking about, for instance, in terms of what they would use the money for, to develop data systems, you know, to track the individual growth of students, we have those systems in place. So it’s not clear, you know, that the money would in any way help us and it could, you know, it could commit us to expenses in a budget crisis longterm that we don’t want to be committed to. But in terms of the philosophical, you know, sort of underpinnings of Race to the Top, including the idea of tying teacher evaluations and, beyond evaluations, tying teacher pay or removing teachers based on standardized test scores, I personally do have a problem with that for a couple of reasons. Number one, it’s unproven. There’s no research anywhere to show that if you tie teacher evaluations to the standardized test scores of their students that that’s going to improve those test scores. Number two, I think the definition of student achievement as being about what students do one time during the year on a fill-in-the-bubble stand – on standardized tests is much too narrow a definition of student achievement. What I want to see is what’s happening to the student over the course of the year, from the beginning of the year to the end, you know, looking at multiple, you know, assessments of how the student is doing including some, you know, you know, sort of objective, ‘A, B, C, D is the right answer’ test. But I want to see their written assignments, I want to see portfolios of the work that they do, I want to see group work. And, you know, without that kind of definition of student achievement, I very much worry that we narrow down, you know, what a teacher is supposed to do to focus, you know, a student on filling out the right bubbles on a test that are not helpful, you know, to that student over time. And the other point, you know, that, you know, is often tied, that goes hand in hand with this tying, you know, teacher evaluations to standardized test scores is the notion of merit pay so that if a teacher has students in the class and the test scores, you know, go up, you give that teacher more money with the idea that that’s motivating the teacher to work harder, to, you know, to help students achieve. Well, when you talk to teachers, they certainly don’t talk about merit pay as, you know, an incentive that’s motivating to them. What teachers talk about is we need lower class sizes, we need more support from nurses and counselors, we need more, you know, onsite professional development that helps us deal with the students, you know, that we’re working with now. The notion of tying, you know – you know, of motivating teachers with a little bit of money down the road, frankly, you know, comes, I think not from teachers and not from educators but from the corporate sector. It’s the strategy that you use with sales, it’s a strategy that, you know, we’ve seen used with mortgage brokers and I’m not sure we want to bring that sub-prime mentality into schools. And the only, you know, comprehensive study that’s been done anywhere on the notion of merit pay is actually done in Portugal and what it showed was you inject a notion of pay for performance into schools and you actually see test scores go down, student achievement go down because what you’re doing is, you’re taking an environment that needs to be collaborative, teachers need to be working together with a same groups of students, and you put in place of that the notion of competition where teachers are, you know, frankly fighting with each other over who gets the…


BARRERA: …credit for, you know, students whose test scores go up. And it’s not – it’s certainly not a proven, you know, approach to improving student achievement and it’s something that teachers don’t believe in.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, surprisingly, we only have a few minutes left and I do want to talk just briefly, I want to get your take on where we are in the search for a new district supervisor, a new school superintendent.


CAVANAUGH: You – The board, to my understanding, has agreed that, indeed, they’re going to hire another superintendent but…


CAVANAUGH: …but how is that search being conducted?

BARRERA: Well, I’m putting a proposal before the board at our meeting next week which would call for a very open, transparent search process, which I believe has been missing from this district in the past. In the past, what the district has done is the board will hire a search firm behind closed doors, the search firm will go out and recruit candidates, most of whom are currently superintendents in somebody else’s district, and will, you know, poach those superintendents, bring them before the board. The board will interview and select candidates behind closed doors because the idea is, you know, somebody who’s currently a superintendent someplace won’t want their current employer to know that they’re implying – you know, applying for a job in San Diego. And the first time that the public knows who the superintendent is is after the selection has been made. So the process that I’m proposing is instead that we put together a search committee, that each board member can appoint, you know, two or three people to a search committee and, hopefully, that would be a committee of, you know, parents and teachers and community leaders, and that we would go through a very public process, town hall forums, other, you know, ways of getting public input about what are we looking for in a superintendent, what are the qualities that we’re searching for. And that after, you know, taking into account what, you know, the public is saying we’re looking for that the committee would narrow down to a list of two or three finalists who then would be brought out to the public and the public would get a chance to meet them, interview them, and then the board would make a selection based on that input from the public.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have a timeframe on this?

BARRERA: Yeah. I think it’s very important that we have a permanent superintendent in place by the early summer so that we go into the next school year with our permanent superintendent in place. I think the process that I’m describing, I’m proposing that we begin in about mid-March and that we take about three months, you know, to go through that process. I think there’s so much, you know, of all of our attention, including parents and teachers and community leaders, focused on how do we survive this budget crisis right now that I think we need to get through that and then focus, you know, our attention on the superintendent search process. So I’m thinking the spring with a permanent superintendent in place by the early summer.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much. We’re out of time but I want to thank you so much for answering the questions so much in depth.

BARRERA: Thank you, Maureen. Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with San Diego Unified School Board president Richard Barrera. There were people who wanted to get in on our conversation. We couldn’t take the calls. I’m so sorry about that. You can post your comments at Now coming up, the City of San Diego’s recycling program is now mandatory for everyone and we’ll talk about it as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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