When I sit down to understand how San Diego Unified spends its money, a little piece of me dies inside. This chart doesn’t help.


At the moment, the district is trying to cope with a forecasted $115 million budget shortfall next year and trying to balance its books for the year after that.

Jenny Salkeld, the controller who oversees several prongs of San Diego Unified finances, used this slide during a recent school board meeting, and said it illustrates how the budget has a lot of moving pieces.

Indeed it does. But I’m not sure what the slide explains beyond that. I’m no numbers whiz, but I apparently wasn’t the only person who found the slide mysterious.

The idea of a graphic is to take a complex idea and distil the information into simple, easy-to-follow pieces. But looking at this graph, you might think of the district budget as a giant blue planet that only draws money toward its center through its gravitation pull. Where are the expenditures? They’re in orbit, my friend.

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

In short, this graph takes a complex concept and turns it into madness.

“That’s my brain on budget,” financial wonk and school board trustee Scott Barnett joked.

After the meeting, I posted the slide on Twitter. The Center for Investigative Reporting seized, jokingly elevating it as an example of “Great Moments in Government Dataviz” and, to add insult to injury, putting mocking quotes around the word “helpful.”

 Perhaps the best response came from former VOSD editor Andy Donohue:

There’s no exact science to spreading messages through social media, but one thing I’ve learned is that when tweets take off, it’s usually because they strike a nerve, or touch on something universal.

If I took a stab at the element here that resonated with people, I’d say that it’s because San Diego Unified isn’t the only school district or public agency that explains its budget using obscure, impenetrable jargon.

I doubt anyone from the district intended this slide to be a comprehensive explanation of the district’s finances. It was probably a hurried add-on, a supplement, little more.

But that’s precisely the problem. Explaining finances to parents is often treated here as an afterthought.

Breaking the budget down into digestible pieces — information that helps parents understand how choices may affect their children in the classroom — takes a backseat to balancing the books on paper.

I think the biggest barrier to getting more people involved in community debates — whether  it’s around politics, school districts or jails — isn’t  apathy. It’s that people don’t understand.

Transparency means more than just slapping down information; it means making that information accessible.

The responsibility, though, is shared. The public deserves clarity. But it’s our job to ask questions, and demand that the school district helps us make sense out of the budget chaos.

    This article relates to: Education, News, School Bonds, School Finances, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    Life-Long Educator
    Life-Long Educator subscriber

    In order for parents to truly appreciate the education being freely and appropriately given to their children, they need to know the cost.  Each parent should receive a pseudo bill, just like home owners with impounds accounts receive from the county tax office.   The parents should have to sign a return statement indicating they have received and hopefully read the "bill".  When you do not actually pay for something, it is very difficult to truly appreciate what has been given to you.  The phrase "free and appropriate" is a misnomer and should be changed to "taxpayer provided".  As they say, there is no real  free lunch.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Life-Long Educator  As one who hasn't had children in school since 1973, when my daughter graduated high school, I'd like to see my "bill" too, but I'd like to see it as an annual sum for the 40 plus years my taxes have been enabling the public school system with no direct benefit.  Neither of my children live in California, so the "grandparenting dividend" isn't there.

    bcat subscriber

    @Life-Long Educator  

    It should not be just parents that value education, it is all of society.  We all pay, we should all know what it costs and what we are getting.  Here is where public education traditionally falls flat.

    First, we don't have transparency in the expenditures.  The Budget Book is great (see posts below), but it is no longer being produced by SDUSD.  How do we know what they are even doing with the money?

    Second, the value of education should be put into a context that the public understands and appreciates.  How can you ask for bond money, more taxpayer money, a new union contract and expect taxpayers to be happy unless you "sell" them on what they are "buying"?  

    SDUSD and the SDEA clearly have a long way to go to win over taxpayers.  They have not been able to "sell" taxpayers a bond measure for teacher salaries for years.  Taxpayers rejected a recent parcel tax that would go straight to SDUSD without going through the State of California.  The public is not seeing the value.

    There are a few possible reasons for these failures to get more money:

    *  The public can't afford any more taxes

    *  The public doesn't see the value in money that is being requested

    Either way, there needs to be change.  Unfortunately, SDUSD's BoE, administration, and union have all just been hoping for a better economy where more money automatically comes to the school district.  That strategy has not worked for five (5) years [five years of declining budgets from California for public education].  So instead, they are selling off all of their land to pay salaries and benefits in hopes that they have enough land to wait out the economy.  Not really a strategy for long-term success.

    Life-Long Educator
    Life-Long Educator subscriber

    @bcat @Life-Long Educator 

    I could not agree with you more.  I believe society does value education, but  as you said, they cannot see results in the money being spent.  The published metrics are not a truthful picture.  Another poster made excellent suggestions regarding the type of statistics we should be seeing.  How many ELL students are there? What is their transition time?   Do they transition at grade level?  If not, how long til they catch up, if they do?  How many classes must be repeated by students and how many times?  How many graduates are truly 4-year college ready?   Taxpayers deserve to see positive academic results for the amount of money spent.

    bcat subscriber

    @Life-Long Educator @bcat 

    I would love to help analyze the data and answer these questions.  They are important to the public.  However, without political connections or a fair amount of money, it is hard to get the data.  SDUSD just won't cooperate.

    LAUSD was taken to court on a PRA request by the LA Times.  They finally surrendered the data.  This is what it takes, but it is a shame to have to go so far!

    It is a public institution.  How the "customer" (the public) assess the value they get for their money without a public watchdog?

    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase subscriber

    Large organizations are infamous for publishing information that makes it difficult for the public to understand! But in the end the problem is usually not those complications, it's that when you take the trouble to figure something out, then go to their hearings it's obvious quickly that they don't care about public input. They don't respond - and they make people wait an indeterminant amount if time in order to even give comments. This suits them just fine. Until there is public funding for campaigns to break the lock on candidates by big unions and big business - the government of the people will continue to be hijacked by those interests - whether it's a school board, a city council, or a legislature - our government has turned to becoming mostly about the money. 

    bcat subscriber

    @Carolyn Chase  

    I don't think SDUSD is trying to baffle everyone with complexity.  Their situation is truly complex.

    You are right on the money regarding SDUSD being unresponsive to the public.  From Public Records Act (PRA) requests (California equivalent of FOIA), to listening to the public at Board of Education meetings, to releasing test scores, SDUSD has been notorious for ignoring the public.

    Sadly, when you try to "punish them" by ignoring their needs, the real people that suffer are our children and the future of the State of California.  What we need are elected officials (SDUSD Board of Ed and County Board of Ed) that will stop the administration from abusing their position.

    Find yourself a good candidate and support them!  The primaries for at least two members of the Board of Education are in June.  Last election cycle, one of the candidates ran unopposed!  I guess the public is happy to write on blogs and complain, but not upset enough to get out and vote for somebody new.

    bcat subscriber

    As Mario indicated, the real disappointment is that Public Education asks for more and more and explains less and less.

    It is complicated.  It should be.  Public Education is trying to accomplish many real goals that most rational folks would agree are appropriate.  However, they spend little effort engaging the public and little effort explaining what they do and why they need resources.  When the do explain, they take little input from the public.

    Take a look at a few of these issues and decide for yourself if they need to be repaired:

    BUDGET: The disappointment is not that it is complex, the real disappointment is that the Budget Book is no longer available.  It was a +160 page document that showed the public what schools were spending and on what programs.  It showed which schools had a lot of money and students and which schools had little money and/or few students.  Where is the transparency?

    TEST SCORES:  We all want a better way to determine if students do well in school.  Until somebody comes up with a better test or a better way to test, we're stuck with what we have.  Yet, SDUSD will not share test scores with outsiders so we can all see if programs are effective.  Do students do better when we bus them all over the city to a school outside their neighborhood?  Is all the money we spend on English Learners effective at learning English?  Improving test scores?  Are our brightest pupils reaching their potential?  Are our Special Education programs producing students that function in society?  Are SDUSD graduates competitive with other school districts in applying to local colleges (SDSU, UCSD, USD, CSSM, ...)?

    REPRESENTATION:  We have five (5) representatives on the school board for the entire city.  That's more people to represent per member than our own San Diego City Council!  Council members have staff offices and are paid $75,000 per year.  The Board of Education pays about $17,000 with another $13,000 in benefits (see VOSD article).  Compare this to a "middle class income" of $50,000.  That is basically 30% of a full time job, yet they don't keep regular office hours and it is difficult to get an appointment to see a Board of Education Trustee.  At the same time, they need to manage representing upwards of 200,000 people; all the email and phone calls.

    PUBLIC OVERSIGHT:  The public can interact with the School Board once a week on Tuesday nights.  Feel free to exercise your right to provide feedback.  However, you get two minutes to speak and they are not required to answer any question you pose.  There are few committees that require public input and public volunteers rarely get a vote when they are in committee. 

    Dennis James
    Dennis James subscriber

    How about more info about what they have actually spent? Looking at previous budgets (http://www.sandi.net/Page/114) I calculate per student spending as follows:

    07-08 - $11,988

    08-09 - $10,037

    09-10 - $11,980

    10-11 - $11,575

    11-12 - $11,706

    Does that look about right? 

    bcat subscriber

    @Dennis James  

    Looks like you are right, but there is more to the story.

    Pretty upsetting that they did not publish a budget book for the last few years.  It is a treasure trove of information.  They claim that funding has dropped precipitously!

    Here's the catch.  Much of that money was for infrastructure.  The public voted a bond to supply SDUSD (and all districts) with money for brick-and-mortar.  The public specifically turned down the bond proposal for teachers.  So, the public told the district "we don't want to pay for more teachers, we want more paint, brick, buildings, and technology."

    Look closer at the numbers and you'll see that in 2011-12, there was a teacher:student ratio of 1:20.  The nominal cost of a teacher (with overhead and G/A expense) is $90k.  Remember, that's not the teacher's salary, that include benefits, management, electricity, ...  So, that is $90k / 20 pupils = $4,500 per pupil.

    In today's classrooms, those schools without grants or special federal funding, are a ratio of closer to 1:35.  That is more like $3,500 per pupil!

    What I'd really like to see is how much money a school generates (e.g. how much money California provides a campus) vs. how much it spends (e.g. salaries).  Each school gets $xxxx / pupil from California.  This is all decided in Sacramento.  Presumably, San Diego gets a slightly different amount per pupil than San Francisco, Los Angeles, Bartow, Chico, ... Regardless, SDUSD knows what it gets from California for each pupil.  Then, I'd like to see the "profitability" of each campus.  Each campus has individual salaries for every teacher and principal.  So, just add up the basic costs and basic revenue and see how much is left over.  The "left overs" are what you have to spend on administrative costs.

    What can complicate this equation is that the state provides additional funding for low income and English Learners.  Why?  Because these groups are statistically correlated (not cause and effect) with low test scores.  So, it kind of makes sense that if your teaching methods are not working on a specific group of students, find out what is broken and fix it.  Sadly, these funds do not seem to have made much difference.  Although SDUSD has the data, they won't show J. Q. Public if the dollars they use are effective (e.g. increasing test scores).  They merely show an upward trend and call it "good".

    To be fair, SDUSD was honored as a top three urban district in the nation.  Their test scores indicate that they gap between students that are low income and/or English Learners is among the lowest in the nation.  This means that SDUSD is more effective that most of the districts in the country!

    Obviously, still room for improvement...

    Dennis James
    Dennis James subscriber

    @bcat @Dennis James

    I'm not really sure there is a catch. Yes, there are details and looking “closer at the numbers” but most of the time that is about obfuscation. The fact is SDUSD spends a lot of money per student. Are we getting our money’s worth? I find that most people I talk to have no idea how much money is spent. When they find out, they sure have a different opinion about whether we are spending enough.

    bcat subscriber

    @Dennis James

    I'd be interested to hear your definition of "your money's worth."  Mine starts with "money" and "worth". 

    MONEY:  The cheapest education in town is public (home school, charter, or traditional).  Private parochial school is more than $14,000/year for high school.  Private non-parochial school is more than $30,000/year for high school.  So, at your number of $11,000/year it is still the cheapest.  If you remove the capital expenditures (facilities and technology) you get closer to an operating cost of $5,000/year.  Any way you look at it, public is cheaper than private.  Do I want it to cost less?  Of course.  Should it cost less?  I don't really know.

    WORTH:  I consider the value of public education to be primarily to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to function in our democratic society.  This means:  know enough to vote intelligently about what you care about; have the skills to be economically self-sufficient so you don't cost tax payers lots of money.  I think public education meets this minimalistic standard.  

    I'd like public education to do more than this:  prepare students that are interested for college - specifically all of the local colleges and the most prestigious colleges across the U.S. in any field of study.  Prepare students to learn for life so they don't get in a dead-end job, lose the global competition for jobs, and get on public assistance.

    I'd demand <proof> that our students are learning.  This means test scores.  College entrance is outside the scope of public education, so test scores are really the only figure of merit.  I'd like to know:

    *  Are our students doing well compared to our State standards?

    *  Are they improving?  In what way?

    *  Are our students doing well compared to our nation? 

    *  Are our policies effective?  (e.g. busing, Magnet, English proficiency, Special Education, Subsidized lunch)

    *  Are some teachers better at teaching than others?

    Since SDUSD won't provide detailed test scores, I have concerns that they are not doing their best to watch over the money that they have been given.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    I'm sorry, but I'm going to need to see the first 23 slides of that presentation.


    I'm not an accountant, but I play one on TV

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    Beginning Balance + Revenue – Expenditures = Ending balance

    This is at the top of the chart.  Why not list the totals for each?  Then this is 4th grade math. 

    We know that all of the numbers can and will change, but give us numbers at a single point in time.  Like a balance sheet that is produced in the private sector.  

    I'm sure this slide was produced to show how many moving parts that there are and a way of saying " this is hard".  To make it simpiler just take each of the titles on the slide and put a number next to it and we have the beginnings of a spread sheet we can all use.  

    We know it's hard.  Jenny the Controller please help to make it understandable.  Right now it just looks silly.  

    bcat subscriber

    @Glenn Younger  

    Sadly, the financial accounting at SDUSD is still very much in the last century.  They are relics of economic systems that were built upon labor costs, not efficiency (e.g. beginning of the 1900's).  Therefore, their accounting tells them the number of people (headcount) and their skills, but not what they are doing!

    If you dig into the numbers, I think you'll find it very difficult to find the operating cost of a single site.  What this means is that you cannot account for the cost of educating individuals.

    SDUSD can easily tell you the cost of certificated personnel (those with certificates in teaching) and classified personnel (those without teaching credentials).  What they cannot (or do not) reveal is how many certificated individual are teaching in classrooms (as opposed to administrative jobs, special teaching jobs like Special Ed or speech therapy).  These jobs may be necessary, but without proper accounting, it merely obfuscates the cost of education.

    SDUSD is not a small organization.  It has over 13,000 employees.  That is 1/3 the size of Qualcomm.  It is not easy to provide accounting for organizations of this size.

    bcat subscriber

    @Life-Long Educator @Glenn Younger 

    That is definitely a factor.  I think Kowba and Marten are both good people.  

    Regardless, I saw staff members get ruthlessly beat up by the Board of Education routinely at Board meetings.  Whether it was the Bully Pulpit and posturing or whether it was real, it took a toll.  Kowba just could not protect them from the occasional merciless anger of the Board of Education.

    Yeah, I recognize a CYA chart like everyone else.  But the whole story is much more sad.  After five or more years of random beatings, do you blame somebody if they put up a defensive chart to the Board of Education?

    Glenn Younger
    Glenn Younger subscribermember

    Private schools pay teachers less, offer less in retirement and benefits and yet have students with higher scores.  Yes they have more engaged parents AND they are paid less.  

    The key points relating to teachers and their costs are: 

    Paying teachers more will not solve the districts issues or the school district's budget.

    There are more teachers in America than there are teaching jobs. 

    Supply and demand is not working in the public teaching field because of teachers associations and their rules that have been adopted by submissive school boards.

    When 92% of the budget is going to teachers that might be the first place to look to balance the budget.    

    bcat subscriber

    @Glenn Younger  

    You are correct on many accounts.

    Don't underestimate the theory that students do better in private school because they and their parents are "self selected" to want to learn.  In other words, they are in a private school because they want to learn.  After volunteering for many hours in public school, I can tell you that some students don't do well in "classic" public education and some students just plain aren't interested in learning.  You can lead a horse to water...

    Bear in mind that those that don't learn well in private school leave.  This naturally boosts test scores even if you have the same quality teaching.

    The reality of education is that +90% should be spent upon teaching.  What else would you spend the money on?  Bloated central management?  SDUSD has been recognized for one of the lowest management to teach ratios.

    The fact remains that education is still labor intensive, so the balance the budget you have to address the labor expense.  Since many schools without supplemental funding (e.g. grants) are at the maximum of 36 students per teacher, the only way to manage labor expense is not to cut the number of teachers, but to cut their cost.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Its complicated because it is to the advantage of the school system as a whole to do so.

    Using the words Transparency and the school system in the same sentence is an oxymoron.

    bcat subscriber

    @Mark Giffin  

    Not complete enough.  It is really <our> fault as the public.  It is complicated because the California State Law is complicated.

    We the public need to accept responsibility and if we want to change it we have two choices:

    *  Traditional government choices (e.g. lobby the legislature, cast your vote on the issues)

    *  Create more charter schools that don't have to be complicated

    bcat subscriber

    Candidly, I knew all these details but it doesn't really help to try to consider them all at once.

    The situation is straightforward:

    *  Public Education is necessary for democracy

    *  Teaching at public schools is a required task and not one that can be bid "competitively".  Therefore, it is a legitimate condition for collective bargaining.  (In other words, an out of work teacher has a hard time getting a job in another sector).

    *  Tax payers are not lining up to give the state more money.

    *  Voters are not asking the legislature to provide more money for schools.

    *  Schools must work within the amount of money provided by the State of California.

    *  The law dictates the maximum number of students in a classroom.

    *  School districts need to apply the money they have been given and simultaneously obey the law.  Therefore salaries and benefits are going to have to be consistent with that funding.

    *  The only other choices are:

    --  Sell off all assets to pay salaries.  (This is an option only because the Governor and Legislature have allowed it temporarily)

    --  Convert the district (or a large part of it) to a charter district.  This allows the community (or the City of San Diego) to re-write as much (or as little) of the Educational code and Labor laws that they wish.  You don't necessarily get more money, but you don't have to follow all the rules either.

    bcat subscriber

    @Jim Jones @bcat 

    Fine idea...tried several times and failed politically.  So, IMHO it is politically impractical.  Therefore, the only competition for primary / secondary education is charter - not voucher

    That still does not really make the situation competitive for teachers.  There just aren't enough jobs to make the education landscape (public, charter, private) to truly create a competitive market for primary / secondary education teachers.  Compared to many other fields of employment, it just is not competitive.  Consider that the number of "customers" is fixed at 1 - 2% growth annually.  It is a zero sum game where teachers just move from traditional public to charter to private.  Just not economically competitive.

    bcat subscriber

    @Jim Jones @bcat 

    I definitely agree that unless people are forced to change, they typically do not change.  Our current situation indicates that the situation is not dire enough for the general public to change; therefore I expect the status quo to continue until it gets worse.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @bcatWhy can't teaching be a part-time job? A person could work in industry part time and teach part time. In fact, this may be better for education than when teachers who have no practical experience in the work force outside of teaching. This would drive competition by increasing the pool of people available to teach.

    bcat subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @bcat

    You'll have to ask teachers that question.

    The current system allows for even as little as a 24% teacher.  I have contact with on the order of +60 teachers.  Of those 2 - 4 work part time; they job-share with other people.  So, the real life economic environment is such that there are not many workers that wish to make the choice you suggest.

    Care to try it yourself and be a part time teacher?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @bcat 24% means if someone wanted to teach one class five days a week, that person would not be allowed to.

    bcat subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann

    At the elementary school level, I have seen two teachers work-share a week - 50% each.

    At the middle school level and high school level you can teach as little as one period = 1/6th of a day =  17% of an FTE.  For example, the language Latin or a subject like physics, biology or calculus.