Many School Districts Facing Budget Shortfall
Friday, March 12, 2010
School districts throughout our county are dealing with difficult financial times. We'll discuss why so many school districts are struggling right now, and what some local districts are doing to cut their deficits.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): The week started out with the release of a list of states, 188 persistently lowest achieving schools, and San Diego has five of them. Then came the report of a new teacher contract approved unanimously by the San Diego Unified School District Board. In Oceanside, teaching jobs were cut. In east county schools, lay off notices are being spent. So, Barbara, let’s start with that agreement. First of all, why was the new contract necessary at San Diego Unified?
BARBARA BRY (Assistant Publisher/Opinions Editor, SDNN.com): A new contract’s necessary because they have to make further budget cuts. We are in a real crisis in terms of funding K-thru-12 education in this state.
BRY: There is just not enough money to go around and 22 years ago the voters passed Proposition 98, which is supposed to guarantee schools a minimum amount of funding but that isn’t happening right now.
SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, Voiceofsandiego.org): But they…
LEWIS: The contract they’ve put in place, though, is merely a gamble that somehow this is going to be okay in the next two years, and it’s just not. The city government is doing this, the county government is doing this, the school district is doing this, basically they’re saying all we need to do is tread water for a year or two and then the pot of gold is coming around the corner. Whether they – the school district is already preparing for a parcel tax that without the kind of fundamental reform I think a lot of people would demand before they do something like that. The city is already talking about revenue increases and such, and if they don’t do the revenue increases they do say, well, even the mayor’s office said, well, things are – you know, this is the worst recession in the world so consequently then in a year or two, it’s all going to be okay. Every government agency, every municipality around is basically gambling right now that everything is going to be okay in 18 months.
PENNER: And it is a gamble.
LEWIS: I believe so because they’re not doing the kind of fundamental reforms, the kind of changes of those dynamics that make it so that in two years they might be pulling in as much money as they’re set up to spend.
PENNER: Right. Again, if you have any questions, make sure you raise your hand because we’re dealing with education now. John.
JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of a gamble. I don’t think that anyone is really worried about what’s going to be on the table in the next two years. The contracts right now represent a means of avoiding strikes, walkouts, and all the other things that would be even more disruptive in the immediate future. And so the idea that they can put a carrot out there of a 7% increase in three years with five days off, furloughs going through up to that point, that’s to maintain the peace and hope that things will change. But I don’t believe for a moment that anyone thinks that it’s going to be okay when they get there.
LEWIS: Well, hope is – hope is not a strategy, though, and yet that’s what so many of our leaders are telling us to do right now, is just to hope. And, in fact, I think that these things, that these entities, are just fundamentally imbalanced.
PENNER: All right, let’s take a question from the audience. Yes, sir.
MARK BURGESS (Sandiego.com): Yes, Mark Burgess with Sandiego.com. Isn’t it true – I agree, I love spending money on kids. But isn’t it true we’re at the bottom of the ranking of schools and at the top of spending right now?
BRY: No. No, we are actually about 46 or 47th in the country on what we spend per student in Ca – you know, California is. So we are at the bottom in what we spend per student. And, you know – so this is a crisis point for education and, really, San Diego Unified is trying to just sort of get through without sort of putting everything on the table. And in the long run, we may have to put everything on the table. Do we have sports? Do we have art? Do we have music? I mean, what are people willing to live without?
PENNER: Barbara, does this mean, this contract mean, that we’re not going to see layoffs at San Diego Unified the way we’re going to see in Oceanside and Lemon Grove and Spring Valley and in the east county?
BRY: Not at this time in San Diego Unified.
LEWIS: No. No, they’re – the layoffs are still on the table.
PENNER: That’s right. That’s right.
LEWIS: And that’s what’s so interesting about this budget is that they’ve basically protected the older, more senior teachers…
BRY: That’s right.
LEWIS: …and allowed them to, you know, I don’t know that there’ll be as many layoffs as possible but there is – they are again, hoping that this will work out. But it’s just not – there are layoffs still on the table.
BRY: Yeah, and John DeBeck has been very – he’s one of the school board members, has been very critical in terms of that the current contract protects the more senior teachers and not the newer ones who some of them could be better.
LEWIS: We just had an interesting development that in John DeBeck’s reelection campaign the teachers’ union has endorsed his opponent, a guy you might all know, Scott Barnett, who used to run the taxpayers’ association. And he is, you know, somebody who’s made a living out of sort of challenging labor unions and such but now they are so angry about DeBeck and the fact that they don’t have influence over at least two of the school board members that they’re willing to go that far just with Barnett. So we’ll see how that plays out.
BRY: And DeBeck’s been outspoken against the union, more so than any other school board member.
PENNER: And John DeBeck has been on the school board longer than any other member of the school board.
PENNER: So he is up for election. But we do have another question and this is from one of the students who is visiting here with Rotary today. Yes, sir.
NICHOLAS ALARCON (Student): Hi, my name is Nicholas Alarcon, and I go to San Diego High School MVPA. My question is about the budget cuts. You say that we don’t have money, that there has to be budget cuts but I know for a fact at my school they’re spending millions of dollars to create a new studio and to build a kitchen. My question is, how come you spend millions of dollars on those things instead of paying for teachers and for new books.
WARREN: May I answer that?
BRY: May I, too?
WARREN: The reason they’re able to do that is that school districts, like government, operate off of two budgets. One is the operating budget and the other is capital improvements. And the building that you see is under the capital improvement budget which is separate from the dollars that are used for the classroom or for textbooks so that’s why you can be – you can see two things at once.
LEWIS: But it’s happening all over and I agree it’s not – it doesn’t mean that we should just square that in our head okay. It does feel awkward. You know, at Point Loma they’re building a film studio and some film equipment and yet at other places they’re having difficulty even getting just laptops. And I agree that they’re – that it’s not weird to be confused by that disconnect. There’s a – there is a disconnect right now. There’s money for buildings, there’s money for technology, there are money for using some of that money to – for a downtown library but there’s other things being neglected at the same time.
PENNER: We’re down to our last couple of minutes. Let’s try to get in one more question from the audience.
GUY (Retired Airline Pilot): My name’s Guy. I’m a native San Diegan and retired airline pilot. My question is, wasn’t the lottery supposed to give 33% of everything it made to the education or has it gone to the slush fund or some gangster’s, you know, putting it away in Chicago? Where’s that money really going?
PENNER: Anybody know where the lottery money’s going?
WARREN: The lottery monies were – I believe they were raided by the governor a couple of years ago. And, yes, when it was first passed in this state and every other state, the idea was it was for education but I don’t think you can find a state in which those dollars have remained true to that purpose since.
PENNER: All right, in the last minute that we have, I mentioned earlier that five of San Diego’s schools are in the – on the list of the worst performing and what I’d like to know, Barbara, is what happens to them now?
BRY: Okay, what happens to them now, number one, they can close down and send the students to another school. Number two, they can become a charter school. Number three, they can replace the principal and a substantial part of the teachers and they’re also allowed to apply for special funding to improve their status.
LEWIS: Well, one of the interesting things about that is one of those schools is King Chavez and King Chavez has been remade several times, over and over again. All the – every idea that is out there has been used. So I think it comes down to leadership, and if they can somehow figure out a formula for -- and, you know, there’s schools all over the city that have improved themselves without major reforms and yet others like Keiller and others that are succeeding with fundamental changes, so it’s very difficult to just prescribe one that fits all.
PENNER: The federal government has been very actively helping to subsidize some of the industries like the banking industry, the finance industry, and is trying to help education but it hasn’t been able to help education in California. And what is the reason for that, Barbara?
BRY: Well, you mean we didn’t get any of the race to the money – Race to the Top money?
BRY: Well, it’s unclear why California didn’t get any. The articles that I’ve read have speculated that one reason is that fewer than half of our school districts and teachers unions voted to participate in the state application. That could’ve been a reason why we didn’t get any of that money.
PENNER: Okay. Final comment, John.
WARREN: There was also a concern about tying those dollars to teacher performance and many are not willing to have the teachers evaluated as a condition of receiving federal – additional federal funds.
PENNER: Okay, well, with that I want to thank Club 33 for hosting us today. And I want to thank my wonderful panel, John Warren, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, Barbara Bry from SDNN.com, and, of course, Scott Lewis, we’re happy you were able to make it today, voiceofsandiego.org. This has been the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.