San Diego Unified's Overly Complicated Budget, in One Chart - Voice of San Diego


San Diego Unified's Overly Complicated Budget, in One Chart

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.

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.

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.

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