At Superintendent Cindy Marten’s recent press conference, reporters seemed genuinely surprised that she could present a balanced budget with some good news while filling a shortfall first estimated to be $106 million.

Commentary - in-story logoHow is this possible after one board member has repeatedly said that the district is paying the price for years of financial mismanagement? What happened to one claim that the board’s earlier plan was a “ticking time bomb” destined to blow up right around now?

Such contradictions are not new. A few years ago, San Diegans 4 Great Schools, a group of philanthropists, business leaders, parents and others who wanted to remake the school board, railed that “public schools are failing” in San Diego, but last year the Broad Foundation found the district to be one of the top four urban districts in the nation.

So what is the truth about San Diego Unified’s budget? How did we get here? Since I joined the board six years ago, we have continuously faced massive and unprecedented budget cuts. At the same time we did not lose our focus on improving student achievement. We even dared to develop a plan, Vision 2020, to make us into a world-class school system. We balanced the budget every year and academic achievement kept going up. We realize that we still have a very long way to go to achieve success for all students in our district regardless of race, ethnicity, first language, disability or income level.

How did we do it? We started off with “good cuts.” We did away with millions of dollars of outside contracts and consultants and relied on our home team. We found greater efficiencies, such as increasing the minimum ridership on each school bus to reduce the transportation budget. But as the cuts continued, we had to reduce our staff. We significantly decreased the number of employees in the district. We limited layoffs as much as possible, because of the instability that it brings to students.

We survived with federal stimulus dollars, property sales and employee concessions. Property sales have been referred to as “selling Grandma’s jewelry to pay the rent.” I am happy to report that “Grandma’s jewelry” has produced a great return. Our Class of 2020 had a great experience in their first few years of school with small class sizes. Our Class of 2012 had relative stability in their high school years without major cuts in course offerings.

We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

Secretaries, teachers, the superintendent and the Board of Education all took pay cuts. Every employee took a cut either in furlough days or a percentage salary reduction. The 2010 negotiation not only delayed pay raises, but included taking concessions in the meantime. This crucial fact is often omitted by our critics. Full implementation of the raises for teachers does not occur until the 2014-2015 school year. Our critics deride the overdue raises without acknowledging the money our schools gained through the concessions. No ticking time bomb has blown up.

Proposition 30 stopped the massive cuts to education, but the current plan does not reach the 2007 level of funding until 2020. After its passage we realized that state revenues would not catch up with our current level of service and class size for about three years. Would it make sense to make massive, disastrous cuts in the first two years after Prop. 30 and then put the system back together after the third year? No. We had to build a bridge.

Last year we realized that the only reasonable way to meet our budget shortfall was through employee attrition and property sales. At that time, I said that we needed to set up a school stabilization fund from the property sales for this unique three-year period.

For next year’s budget, Marten took a student-centered approach, which meant first looking at what was needed in the classroom and secondarily looking at how that affected adult employees. In her March proposal she indicated we would need an additional $30 million in property sales to balance the budget. I made clear that I could not support substantial additional property sales. It was the right thing to do in previous years. In an emergency you take extreme measures. We are no longer in such a dire situation. The whole point of the school stabilization fund was to be a temporary measure as we worked on closing the structural deficit.

The board approved an early retirement incentive this year as an alternative to disruptive layoffs. It was up to the superintendent to make the board’s plan work. Marten and her staff worked very closely to try to fill as many classroom vacancies with existing staff to lower ongoing expenses. By June she had reduced the additional property sales to $7.3 million. That may even go down further when last-minute changes to the state budget are reviewed in July.

As a board, we directed the superintendent to look as specifically as possible at how to balance the budget over a three-year period. In my first term I realized that it was impossible to plan more than one year at a time. Sometimes we even faced mid-year budget cuts. But this time, I did not want to approve an official one-year budget without knowing exactly how it would affect the next two years. Next year is the second year of the school stabilization plan. We can now reasonably say we are on track to eliminate the structural deficit over the next two years. We can then move into positive revenue territory.

This will allow the superintendent and the board to focus on educational improvement, rather than ongoing budget crises. Next year’s budget includes a full school year and avoids the instability of massive reductions in staff and programs. But it also makes a down payment on what is most important: reduction of class size in the early grades, beginning to re-open elementary libraries, preparing teachers for Common Core, expanding transitional kindergarten to all elementary schools, continuing with graduation coaches to make sure that the Class of 2016 is on track to meet the new requirements and a strong focus on K-1 literacy and English-language learners.

One sign of a successful budget: People pack the auditorium when they have complaints about the proposed budget. There was no packed auditorium for this budget vote. The board voted to approve the budget 5-0, the first time this has happened since I joined the board in 2008.

This forward-moving budget was possible for three major reasons:

• We had a board majority from 2008-2013 that listened to our constituents and voted to keep our schools stable and class sizes as low as possible by approving property sales and negotiating concessions from all employee groups;

• In 2012, Californians voted for a down payment for education funding through Proposition 30;and

• We have a brilliant superintendent who knows how to implement Vision 2020 with a laser focus on student learning, and who crafted a budget to achieve those goals.

John Lee Evans is a member of the San Diego Unified Board of Education.

    This article relates to: Education, News, Opinion, School Finances, School Leadership

    Written by John Evans

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    So, Trustee Evans, do you believe in ticking time bombs now?  You were warned, but you ignored the facts.

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    Somehow I missed this article, but let's just say that while I appreciate Trustee Evans' insistence that the district do a three-year analysis of the budget, he is turning a blind eye and is providing "cup half-full" half-truths to spin a better picture than the reality.

    Taking it point by point:

    The district is NOT out of the woods financially. It is still in the midst of a ticking time bomb.  Look no further than the first line "predicted deficits" of the table on page 9 of the district's CFO's financial report to the Board at their July 28, 2015 meeting [at$file/2015-16%20Amended%20Budget%20Presentation%2C%207-28-15.pdf ]  (These figures are not substantively different than the amounts presented to the Board at their June 23, 2015 meeting, which occurred before this Op-Ed by Trustee Evans.)  

    For those who don't want to take the time to look it up, suffice to say that the district is facing an estimated deficit of $34.6 million in 2015-16 and has predicted deficits of $94.7 million in 2016-17 and $119.5 million in 2017-18.  Does this sound like solid financial footing?  The deficits would be even worse except that the state economy rebounded better than was expected over the past two years, and by a stroke of luck (actually due to provisions in  Prop 98 from 1989), education was the big winner and got most of the additional state revenue.  Trustee Evans would make one believe that the district will be solvent in three years, but the CFO provided no forecasts for the deficit in year four, and every indication is that it won't be any better.  At least the district isn't forecasting to use one-time money (e.g. property sales) to balance the budget after 2015-16, but then again, there is almost nothing left to sell.  (The district did already sell "grandma's jewels"--like the property in Mission Bay--and only has the "odd pieces of furniture" that no one really wants left to sell.)

    Furthermore, the terminology and methodology the district states that it will be using to combat these shortfalls is concerning.  What does "right sizing operations" to the tune of $194 million over the next three years really mean?  In the past, it has meant cuts--to student programs (such as off campus learning programs like Balboa Park and 6th grade camp, loss of the department and school site funds for Gifted and Talented Education, busing, etc.--and all of these cuts remain in place)--and increases in K-3 classes sizes (which are slated to drop to 1:24 in 2015-16, after reaching a high of 1:27, but are still well above the pre-recession level of 1:20).  The district is also relying on $24.3 million in income by increasing student enrollment in high school and early education programs plus $19.5 million from increasing returns of survey cards to identify students who are English learners or from low income households (either of which would entitle the district to an additional 50% more funds for these students).  Even the county office of education feels that the latter approach would be essentially counting chickens that haven't hatched.

    For the record, much of these financial problems originate from the state, which continues to under-fund education and sabotage every time it looks like it might finally do better (e.g. the state dumping the majority of the $80 billion unfunded pension liability of CalSTRS into the laps of districts over the next 30 years).  But this district has a long history of ignoring reality, which just exacerbates the problem.

    Trustee Evans goes on to say how much the employees have sacrificed in pay cuts through furlough days.  What he didn't say was that the students got the same cuts because the furlough days were all instructional days--so the students lost 15+ days of instruction.  Unlike the employees, whose pay was immediately restored per contract as soon as more funds flowed into the district (at about the same cost as was generated by increasing K-3 class sizes that same budget year to fill a budget deficit, by the way), the students never got back any instructional days and in fact saw their class sizes increase (as both K-3 and middle school class sizes increased that year).

    And just wait until Prop 30 expires (starting in 2016, with the expiration of the sales tax portion, and completely in 2018), just as pension payments to CalSTRS and CalPERS start to really ramp up (as alluded to by Mark Giffin). 

    I could go on, but you get the picture. 

    Finally, the reason no one showed up to complain about this budget is, in part, because those who do--the few who are willing to wait for up to 4 hours for our 60 seconds of public comment--know from years of experience that the budget process is really nothing more than going through the motions and that nothing any of us say or do will change the budget decisions that are made by the district long before the budget is ever in a public forum (e.g. negotiations with collective bargaining units that added more than $60 million in cost to the 2015-16 budget and increased the budget deficits in future years).  Plus holding the first real budget meetings in June (as opposed to the meeting that occurred in February during the worst years, due to the possibility to use lay-offs to balance the budget), it is difficult for parents to make the time to attend, between end-of-year events and summer break vacations.  (To be honest, this, too, is partly the state's fault, as the revised state budget figures are released in mid-May, with actual state education funding not determined until mid-June and sometimes even later.)

     I just wanted to set the record straight with the facts, not the spin, because the public deserves the facts.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    About the time Bomb.

    Guess the time bomb fuse still lit.

    From todays editorial by Chuck Reed mayor of San Jose

    "San Diego Unified School District provides a sobering example of things to come. This year, their teacher pension costs will increase $3 million and $19 million in two years. District officials estimate that by 2021, when all of the increased costs are fully recognized, their teachers’ pension bill will be $58 million higher. Like all school districts, SDUSD also pays CalPERS for its other employees such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers and school staff and its contribution rates are expected to rise 50 percent by 2021."

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    "One sign of a successful budget: There was no packed auditorium for this budget vote."

    Maybe nobody showed up to protest because there is nothing left for you to take away to complain about and everyone has just given up!  They all showed up when you took it away originally!

    GATE: Defunded and essentially gone except in financially well off schools that have funding to support it – 25,000 gifted students held back with no place to go but the limited "common core"

    6th Grade Camp: Gone

    Balboa Park: Gone

    Old Town: Gone

    ELST’s: essentially either gone or bumping a teacher out of a classroom with ELL students and their teachers losing support.  This is "strong focus" on ELL's?

    43 Principal last year and 14 so far this year – Gone – hard to protest the removal of a Principal in 60 second before the board meeting, especially when it is secretly done in closed session.

    Major cutbacks in VAPA  

    Major cutbacks in busing and charging for it.

    Major cutbacks in Custodial while implementing Breakfast in the Classroom and all the spoiled food and and germs in the carpet and surfaces that come with it but no time to clean it.  And actually thinking that a 1st grader can do a good job of cleaning up the hundreds of spills that occur.  (look for the video on is hilarious!)

     Sounds like the budget has been balanced on the backs of kids critical enrichment programs, Teachers, and hardworking staff...quite a "Vision".   Maybe the "Ticking Time Bomb" is not the budget but the frustration of all District Stakeholders except the Superiintendent and Board.


    @voiceofsandiego District pushed 100s of expensive employees 2insolvent pension program. Taxpayers lose b/c must pay 4 retirees+nu teachers.

    SherryS subscriber

    @mp3michael @voiceofsandiego If CA taxpayers/legislators adequately funded public education, we wouldn't be in this mess and we could keep the experienced teachers.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @mp3michael @voiceofsandiego 

    And if the younger teachers understood how the funding formula works for their retirement system they would have a clue.

    But thats not important right now.

    ScrippsDad subscriber

    @SherryS @voiceofsandiego  Are you saying that taxpayers do not pay enough in taxes for education? What is the number you're looking for or is this just a generalized statement without quantification and justification? How much more do you want us all to pay? 1 dollar, 2 dollars, 5 dollars, 2oo dollars, a thousand dollars or more? How much more are you willing to pay on top of what you're paying now?

    Do you think throwing more taxpayer money at this solves the problem of budget deficits and not proper fiduciary and strategic planning whereby you don't spend more than you take it? Do you see anything wrong with District compensation comprising over 95% of the General fund that pays for all District salaries and benefits so 95 cents of every dollar goes to adults and not to kids? Do you think more taxpayer money solves this when the SDEA and it seems the District are agreeing to increasing just teacher salaries by another 14%; just because......

    Also - how do you equate experience with quality? We see many experienced professionals who are certainly not quality professionals. Would you go to a doctor who has 25 years of practice yet multiple patient complaints and malpractice just because they have 25 years of experience?

    francesca subscriber

    The gentleman doth praise too much, me thinks.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    What properties will be sold next year to "balance" the budget?

    SherryS subscriber

    I applaud the school board and the superintendent for their efforts.  However, San Diego Unified School District remains woefully underfunded.  In particular, the baseline funding is not enough to achieve success for students in middle income areas that do not qualify for Title 1 funding and raise only modest amounts through foundations of mostly working moms spending their "spare" time begging for money.  Our kids deserve much more to meet their potential and to be prepared to compete in this global economy.

    -P subscriber

    @SherryS The schools that do get Title 1 funds are underfunded as well. Many (most?) of the parents associated with those schools don't have the means to contribute to those foundations, or if they can, the amounts are meagre at best.

    SherryS subscriber

    @-P Yes, I agree that all CA schools deserve more resources from the state.  But the schools in the middle income areas of SDUSD are suffering the most.  That's where elementary school libraries have been closed for years and there is only rarely a school nurse.  The local control funding that my daughter's elementary school receives for "discretionary" spending covers little more than the cost of one copier.  If you look at the numbers as Mario did in a previous VOSD piece, you'll see that the foundations for these middle income schools are not able to bring in enough money to pay for the basics that rich areas (like La Jolla) fund through foundations and poor areas get through Title I funds.

    Grammie subscribermember

    @SherryS @-P No surprise, the middle income class is slated for extinction.

    The middle class is seen as  potential trouble makers, and therefore a thorn in the side of all current governments.

    David Meyer
    David Meyer subscriber

    @SherryS Exactly.  My daughter was in a 28 person kindergarten class in  a small "trailer" classroom in one of those middle income areas this past year.  I'll believe the class size of 25.5 (sometimes advertised as 25) in this budget only when I see it in the fall.