Morning Report: San Diego Unified Balances Budget With Coronavirus Aid

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Morning Report: San Diego Unified Balances Budget With Coronavirus Aid

San Diego Unified School District Trustee John Lee Evans speaks at the press conference announcing that schools would close March 16. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The coronavirus relief money headed to San Diego Unified has created a rosy financial picture for the coming school year, but it also obscures the district’s long-term budget problems.

Before the pandemic hit, Ashly McGlone reports, school officials were looking at layoffs to help close a deficit that had ballooned to $84 million earlier this year, in large part because of across-the-board salary raises, pensions and health care for employees.

There will be no layoffs next year, according to the superintendent, and the budget is now balanced thanks to coronavirus aid.

But when the COVID-19 money runs dry, the district is going to face a budget crisis like nothing in its recent history. Indeed, district leaders have suggested they could close campuses midway through the next school year without more from the federal government.

The aid approved so far is intended for cleaning, protective gear and other virus-combatting things, but because the rules on spending are lax, the money could be spent on regular school costs. 

“For now,” McGlone writes, “the district’s plan to forgo layoffs and use coronavirus aid to help close an existing budget hole means less money is available for, well … coronavirus aid.”

San Diego Unified Elections Could Be Very Different Moving Forward

A coalition of parents — from both north and south of Interstate 8 — has been advocating for major changes to San Diego Unified board elections for years. On Tuesday, they moved one step closer to getting their wish. 

Currently, board members are elected in a two-step process. During the primary election, they run within their own subdistrict, which comprises a smaller geographic area. During the general election, they must run across the entire city. 

Those who want candidates to run in their subdistrict only say the current system makes it impossible for a grassroots candidate to win. That’s because running citywide is more costly and has tended to favor union-backed candidates, they argue. We explored the tortured history of the push for district-only elections back in February. 

So here’s the deal now: The City Council had to weigh in to change the way elections work. And on Tuesday, it approved a ballot measure that will go before voters in November. If passed, that ballot measure would end the current system, in favor of district-only elections. 

Also headed to the November ballot: an independent commission on police practices that has subpoena power. If approved by voters, it would dissolve the current citizen review board and create a body with the powers to investigate SDPD officers for alleged misconduct separate from the police chief. 

The City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday that the voters should decide whether police oversight needs an overhaul. It has the support of criminal justice reformers, the mayor and district attorney. 

As COVID Cases Spike, Contact Tracing Efforts Lag

KPBS analyzed coronavirus data and found that while Chula Vista, National City and southeast San Diego still have by far the highest number of confirmed cases, other areas, including Pacific Beach, saw a much higher increase during the last half of June.

An epidemiologist at San Diego State University advised against drawing hard conclusions, but the trend seems to align with a spike among young people and a relaxing of restrictions on businesses in late May.

Reporter Claire Trageser also notes in a separate story that the region’s contact tracing efforts are not keeping pace with the surge. They county’s contact tracers have only reached a fraction of the people believed to be infected, and not all of those people are willing to quarantine.

The head of the contact tracing program with the county told Trageser that they’ve been forced to issue health orders and get law enforcement involved on occasion. How exactly police are preventing people from leaving their homes is not clear, though. 

Months ago, public health officials said they were interested in using a contact tracing app to help track and keep people isolated. Those plans are on hold, but could be revived later this year. 

County to explore testing at schools: The County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to ask its staff to come up with a plan for spending about $5 million to test for COVID-19 at schools. The money is part of $48 million allocated by the federal CARES Act relief package. The supervisors also directed staff to set aside almost $19 million for food assistance, which would include using some of the money to subsidize struggling restaurants. And it would send $25 million to subsidize child care. 

Supervisor Jim Desmond and Supervisor Kristin Gaspar were opposed. Gaspar said she was uncomfortable with testing at schools — that medical issues should be private for families. 

Also: The supervisors approved asking staff to find a statistician to scrutinize the staff’s own statisticians’ numbers about the pandemic. Supervisor Nathan Fletcher was the only no vote on that. He said the staff already had competent statisticians reviewing the numbers. 

In Other News

The Morning Report was written by Megan Wood, Jesse Marx and Will Huntsberry, and edited by Sara Libby.

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