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San Diego Unified School District Holds First Town Hall Meeting

San Diego Unified School District Holds First Town Hall Meeting

GLORA PENNER (Host): California's massive budget problems are being felt in classrooms across the state. Many districts are bracing for further cuts while trying to balance their existing budgets. Last night, the San Diego Unified School District held the first of its kind town hall meeting to address the budget. KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis is here to talk about that. So welcome Ana.

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS News): Thank you.

PENNER: What happened at last night's budget meeting?

TINTOCALIS: Well these town hall meetings are designed for the district to be more open and honest about the district's money problems. It's also a way for the district to attempt to be more collaborative with the public. You know, this idea that moms and dads and community members might have better ideas and more creative solutions than district officials. So that was kind of the premise of the town hall meeting. About 100 parents, very concerned parents came. District officials were there, they had graphs and charts, a PowerPoint presentation of the magnitude of the situation... Parents I think immediately started to express fear and frustration and anger.

PENNER: Well the numbers are gigantic. We're talking about up to $200 million in a $1.2 billion dollar budget. What is that? That's about 20%. More than 20%.

TINTOCALIS: That's exactly right. Worst-case scenario, if they have to cut $200 million that's twice as deep as they cut last year. So it's humongous. And parents you know, they went into it trying to get more information, maybe offering some solutions, but I think in the end they had more questions and complaints about the proposed budget solutions than actual answers or solutions.

PENNER: What were those proposed budget solutions?

TINTOCALIS: So there's a couple menu of options in terms of budget suggestions thus far. A lot of programs that are near and dear to parents and teachers are again on the chopping block - music, arts, athletics, this idea of increasing class size yet again. Other menu options include cuts to dropout prevention programs. Programs could be cut that help support new teachers, mentor new teachers. There's also this idea of taking kindergarten classes and - they're full day classes now - but maybe scaling it back to half-day kindergarten classes.

PENNER: That couldn't have been popular.

TINTOCALIS: It was not popular at all at the town hall meeting. That was one of the big issues that parents were concerned about.

PENNER: Ok, so is there a deadline that they're working under? I mean, the new fiscal year is coming up in just a few months.

TINTOCALIS: They are working on an aggressive timeline and with education budgets there are several deadlines. So Governor Schwarzenegger is expected to come out with a new spending plan in January and that's expected to contain cuts to education. So, districts across California have to have some solid ideas in place by January. March is another deadline. That's when we start hearing about pink slips and teacher cuts. So that's another deadline that is mandated by the state. Then finally the district has to come up with a solid, concrete plan vetted by the public by June. When you consider all the steps leading up to that June deadline, it's very accelerated.

PENNER: I heard the there's something that's a little bit different - that the school board decided to build next year's budget from the ground up. What does that mean?

TINTOCALIS: So the technical term is called zero-based budgeting. And for years the district operated with this blueprint, this spending plan, and they kind of just carried it on from year to year. And they would manipulate it, cut back, add, what have you. Some critics are saying, you know maybe the spending plan is part of the problem. Maybe we kind of have to do away with that and start from scratch. So it's this idea of really taking an honest assessment of all the needs of the district and assigning a reasonable price tag to those needs and creating a budget that way. Critics say though, you know the district doesn't have the time to. It takes a lot of consideration; a lot of reflection, a lot of creative thinking when you're doing zero-based budgeting. And critics say you know you just don't have the time for that San Diego Unified. You're already facing this January deadline so lets just go ahead with the spending plan that we have.

PENNER: Well thank you very much, Ana Tintocalis.

TINTOCALIS: You're welcome. Thank you.