San Diego Unified’s Mysterious Budget Thermometer, Explained
San Diego Unified tried to clarify its budget picture with a visual aid. But the graphic itself was awfully confusing.
Last year was a brutal one for budget cuts at San Diego Unified.
The district had to carve $124 million from its budget. For next year, district leaders have said they need to shave $47 million more, though that amount is now expected to drop. District leaders could put on the chopping block a variety of services and programs, including cuts to preschool, counseling, music and art programs and custodial services.
The district says it needs the state’s help to stave off those cuts.
Just to maintain current services, the district says it needs an additional $59 million from the state. To reach what the district considers full and adequate funding, it would need an additional $350 million.
To demonstrate how much help it needs from the state, the district has created a graphic of a thermometer. (Still unclear is why they used a thermometer, or when thermometers started measuring money).
Instead of helping us understand the budget, however, the graphic only led to more questions.
What’s up with the scale of the thermometer, and why does it look like $1.3 billion is a tiny fraction of $350 million?
And why are we talking about New York? More specifically, what does “1/2 New York” even mean? It doesn’t even make a complete point IT JUST SAYS “½ NEW YORK.”
The man behind the graphic, it turns out, is school board trustee John Lee Evans.
Evans said he requested the chart to illustrate how much of a funding increase the district needs to maintain the same programs with no across-the-board salary increases. The amount: $59 million.
The graphic made an appearance in December when the district presented its first interim financial report. It reappeared at a school board meeting this month, when trustees draped two big posters of it over the school board dais.
“I tried to really just simplify how things are,” Evans said at the school board meeting.
But it’s not just a simplification. It’s a distortion. Here’s how the thermometer looks now, compared to how it would look if it was drawn accurately to scale.
Holy guacamole! That’s quite the difference!
Seriously, though, $350 million is a lot of money and would help the district provide crucial services to kids. But drawn to scale, the graphic shows the funds the district needs from the state are relatively small compared to its overall budget.
It’s an exaggeration to make it look like the $350 million the district needs dwarfs the $1.3 billion it already has. The $59 million-need looks especially minor given the district’s full budget picture.
Evans, however, said the scale of the drawing was done out of concern for… paper.
“I drew out a rough sketch and it would take too much paper to show the $1.3 billion to scale and it would make the $59 million we need [look] minuscule, so I just put the $1.3 billion as the baseline and $59 million shown as the amount needed to increase for status quo and the total $350 million that we calculated a couple of years ago as the amount needed to fully fund our schools. So, yes, the chart is not to scale,” Evans said.
So that one’s settled. But how about the other questions?
Evans said the cryptic reference to “½ New York” refers to research that shows per pupil spending in California amounts to half of per pupil spending in New York, once adjusted for state economic differences.
Fair enough! If only that explanation had been included on the chart that’s meant to explain the district’s budget needs.
But Evans said the board is trying to make it easier for the public to understand the complicated machinations of a school district’s budget.
“We are trying to make the budget information as clear as possible. That way people can identify which spending they agree with and which they disagree with, before, during and after the budget process,” he said.