San Diego City Schools' Board of Education member Fran Zimmerman brought forward a reasonable-enough idea last week, and, staying true to its recent history, the board rejected the proposal with a 3-2 vote. Stop us if you've heard this one before.
The idea deserved a better, more open-minded discussion than it got. But, of course, open-mindedness is not a hallmark of the current Board of Education. Despite being discussed by the board for roughly an hour-after perhaps an hour's worth of public testimony—the idea was dismissed by a board majority without any well-intentioned give and take.
Zimmerman wanted to revive the old community advisory committee on the budget for one simple, rather compelling reason-the San Diego City Schools Board of Education doesn't understand its very complex $1.1 billion budget.
At least two members of the board, Zimmerman herself and the recently elected Katherine Nakamura, have acknowledged a certain lack of budgetary comprehension. As a remedy, Zimmerman wanted to establish a 15-member committee consisting of three people appointed by each board member and supported by the district's chief business officer and two finance deputies. Under Zimmerman's plan, the committee members would be people who possess a keen understanding of budgets and finance.
The committee would soak up budget information through presentations from district staff and special interests—such as special education advocates, music and arts advocates and minority groups—and hear public testimony. It would consider budget recommendations from Supt. Alan Bersin and his Executive Leadership Team and discuss them in an open forum before they go to the Board of Education. The committee would start from scratch and come to its own conclusions about how the district's programs should be funded.
There had previously been a budget advisory committee, but Bersin allowed it to die a slow, quiet death by simply declining to convene it. Bersin last week said such a committee is unnecessary because board members already can seek out advice about how to respond to district staff's budget recommendations.
Board members Ed Lopez and Ron Ottinger immediately went on the defensive, arguing that they didn't need anyone telling them what to do. Nakamura, who joked about how clueless she is about all matters budgetary (she said she needed pictures to help her understand the complex data) also voted no.
Normally, talk of forming committees, task forces and blue-ribbon panels makes CityBeat chafe. But in the case of San Diego City Schools, we hate to say it, but we think it's an awfully good idea. This is a district whose superintendent had to be berated constantly over a long period of time before he would even admit that he needed to communicate better with parents and teachers—which is an understatement of colossal proportions.
For budgetary reasons, 1,487 teachers have received pink slips letting them know they might not have a job next year. The district faces a $150 million deficit. Parents, teachers and education activists are burning with resentment at how the district is conducting business. There is much acrimony and very little mutual respect or understanding. Providing a forum that fosters respectful sharing of information and aims to enhance understanding is worth a try.
Given that staff budget presentations have the heads of two board members spinning—and we suspect the number might really be as high as four—we believe the district has the duty to facilitate a process that will provide much more transparency and perhaps break down some of the distrust.
We urge the board to reconsider Zimmerman's proposal.