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Amid Budget Crisis, Critics Push For Change To School Board

Audio

Aired 10/15/10

The San Diego Unified School District is facing a $140 million deficit for the next academic year, and the district is asking voters to support a $50 million parcel tax to help offset the debt. In the midst of all this, a group of concerned citizens has proposed a ballot measure to overhaul the structure of the school board. We discuss the latest news on the district's budget problems, and the efforts to change the way the school board operates.

The San Diego Unified School District is facing a $140 million deficit for the next academic year, and the district is asking voters to support a $50 million parcel tax to help offset the debt. In the midst of all this, a group of concerned citizens has proposed a ballot measure to overhaul the structure of the school board. We discuss the latest news on the district's budget problems, and the efforts to change the way the school board operates.

Guests

Ricky Young, watchdog editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

JW August, managing editor for 10 News.

Scott Lewis, chief executive officer of voiceofsandiego.org.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

GLORIA PENNER: There's been quite a bit of attention focused on the San Diego City School Board these days. There's an election on November with two of the five trustee sets up for a vote, there's also push for the district for voters to approve a parcel tax to help fund city schools and there are criticisms of the way the district spends what money it does have during these rough times. So Ricky, let's start with the recent watchdog report on the UT on the cost of iPhones, fax machines, and Internet connections incurred by the trustees. This is not a huge amount. Why has it become an issue?

RICKY YOUNG: Yeah, the dollar amounts are not a lot. I think some of the expenses seem like more than some of our readers get, provided by their employers, at least judging by their reaction to our story for the School Board members, there's an argument to be made and someone made it in our letters to the editor this morning, but a lot of them looked at that and said, you know, the school district has been crying for some time that they have no money left. They are advocating for a tax increase, they're funding home in kids' back packs fliers that are essentially advocating for the tax increase, telling voters, every effort has been made to keep money away from the classroom. And I think when the voters see that there's a board member who's getting his home Internet and iPhone and other things provided by the district they think, well, gee issue that's a cut that could be made outside the classroom. Then they think there might be others out there another controversy that our watch dog team looked at maybe a month ago was lapel pins, and, you know, again a small expense. But each area superintendant and there are nine of them had 70 thousand dollars. And one of these expenses this year was $768 on lapel pins for administrators and teachers as a morale booster or something, but if you're spending that, and then asking parents to send in toilet paper for the schools and pencils, I just think it makes people word whether all the cuttings have been made that need to be made.

GLORIA PENNER: That reaction you got from me, it reminded me of the controversy over the supervisors' discretionary fund where they were given a pot of money to provide not to spend on lapel pins but to provide neighborhood grants, and that got quite a wit of reaction after it was finally publicized when they were doing.

RICKY YOUNG: Interestingly that fund that you mentioned hasn't cut in half in response to the controversy. Now we tonight know what's happened with the area superintendant money because we asked on September how much of this money was there last year, so we could see whether it had been increased or decreased with this year's budget because they claim they are cutting their budget, we have still not heard back from them.

JW AUGUST: Whoa.

RICKY YOUNG: We put in a public records request then, and they have far exceeded the time that the law requires them to respond.

GLORIA PENNER: Who is they?

RICKY YOUNG: The school district. We have asked them for documentation, where that money is going, how much of that money was there last year. This year there's 70000 for each of the nine are superintendents. We've asked them for documentation of where that money is going and how much of it this was last year so we can see where those discretion -- they have ignored our request. Well, they've responded a couple of times to ask for more time?

A. Let me just ask our callers about that. I know there's a lot of involvement and what's going on in the schools these days. We're concerned about whether our kids are getting a decent education. Whether teachers are going to be laid off. About the proposition J, which would incur a parcel tax on homeowners and apartment owners here in San Diego. And a whole idea of restructuring the board, having if five elected seats and adding four appointed seats. Lots going on. So how do you feel about the fact that the superintendant of schools and his nine subsuper superintendents?

RICKY YOUNG: Area superintendents.

GLORIA PENNER: Have not responded to a public documents request about this discretionary fund? I'd like to hear from you. 1-888-895-5727. JW, would any of this become a point of discussion if it weren't for the fact that leaks are going on, and we do have a parcel tax to vote on, and we do have don de-Beck up for reelection and Catherine Nakamura, who was the incumbent is now doing a write- in vote because she -- she lost the primary?

JW AUGUST: Well, it certainly probably brings more interest to it. But the fact of the matter is, what brings this to everybody's attention is the recession and the trouble we have making ends meet, election or no election. Just hearing from Ricky that they requested this six weeks ago, and San Diego unified has not given an adequate response makes me grind my teeth. They've either lost their records or they're hiding them.

SCOTT LEWIS: Let's add some context. He knows how I feel about this. This is peanuts.

JW AUGUST: It's the tip of the iceberg.

SCOTT LEWIS: Just a sec. Let's put this in perspective for a second. The board of education has a lot of problems. Some serious issues. And I think you can examine how hundreds of millions of dollars of the school district funds are spent, no question about that. But these people get paid $18,000 a year. They're not lining their pockets they're not going to Acapulco. They make $18,000 a year, and they largely expect themselves to work a full time job. Now, if they aren't supposed to, that's a good question. That's something we should bring up. But providing them Internet is I think a good employment benefit and one I think a lot of employers should do in this, the area of Internet in the age of digital communication.

GLORIA PENNER: Okay.

SCOTT LEWIS: And I think we need to keep that in mind that they're not sitting there, you be, eating caviar.

GLORIA PENNER: So you're listening to the Editors' Roundtable at KPBS, and we're right in the middle of talking about the San Diego unified School Board. And the way money is spent. And we're gonna go on to talk about a couple of other issues there, but first I do want to take some of our callers who have been waiting to get their thoughts on the air. With me at the round table is Ricky Young from the UT and Scott Lewis from voice of San Diego.org, JW August from ten news. And Francis from La Jolla is with us now.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you. Making comparisons between the supervisors' slush fund and their incredible salaries and a $17,000 a year School Board member and the provision of faxes, Internet connection and a cellphone to these people is absolutely a specious comparison. You should be looking at class size and curriculum, and the millions of dollars of spending going into technology that breaks that, that there is no repair budget for, and that is rewarding somebody out there who is getting a great contract.

GLORIA PENNER: So Ricky, defend yourself.

RICKY YOUNG: Francis said we compared the iPhone expense to the supervisors' slush fund. It's not exactly right. We compared the $7,000 fund that each of the area to the -- I don't know where that money goes besides the lapel pins, since September third, they have failed to account for that pending but I'm a little handicapped, because the district has not provided the documents that we asked for on September.

GLORIA PENNER: And that $70,000 is not $70,000 in pay that they get.

RICKY YOUNG: That's right, thigh discretionary money they can spend on, for example, lapel pins that they hand out, and I don't know what else because they haven't responded to our.

GLORIA PENNER: And Midge you are our last callers, and everyone else, I encourage you to did to kpbs.org/news/editors-roundtable. But we will hear from Midge in La Mesa, Midge, go ahead please.

NEW SPEAKER: Thanks for take my call. To me it just seems like this, you know, even whatever -- there's sort of a pattern with a lot of public employees including now these peopling even though they may not make a rather -- that large of a salary, they have discretionary funds and they also have someone suddenly deciding that thereby can be thousands of dollars a month to cover all of these on their Internet program, spending on their phone programs, that's thousands of dollars a month that can be spent in the classroom for example as the woman said before. But there always seems to be what's coming up over and over again are hidden taxes and fees that end up, you know, not even being involved in there. Anyone would love to have a thousand dollars worth of those kind of benefits on the side. Of and over and over again there are these hidden benefits that people get that are never listed in salaries. And it's just becoming outrageous over and over again.

GLORIA PENNER: Okay. Well, because our time is really limited, and I know JW wants to say something, make it brief, JW.

JW AUGUST: It's not the amount of money. It's the fact that they do it. That's all I gotta say.

GLORIA PENNER: Okay. And Scott?

SCOTT LEWIS: I think what -- I'm sorry.

GLORIA PENNER: Ricky.

RICKY YOUNG: I think what a lot of people find unusual is providing the home Internet and the iPhone which is a pretty nice phone. But I did want to note John Lee Evans doesn't take and of that stuff, he just thinks it's better to keep his personnel life separate from his district life. And one thing we hadn't talked about, which is the one problem with the district mixing -- if you're using it to campaign, which a couple of the board members told us they were, that's actually illegal.

SCOTT LEWIS: The ethics guy said that it was a minuscule if not 0 amount of money.

RICKY YOUNG: He did say it was illegal.

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