August 26: Budget Committee

Two major items of discussion on tonight’s Budget Committee agenda:

  • Action item: The Committee considered “In Support of a Comprehensive School Climate, Restorative Justice and Alternatives to Suspensions/Expulsions,” (PDF)  a resolution authored by Commissioners Fewer, Kim and Maufas. The resolution would transform our approach to student discipline, and is founded on some very solid ideas about how to improve school climate. You can’t sit in the closed session reviews of recommended expulsion cases without feeling like something is very wrong with our system, and I think most of the Board would like to see changes in the way we approach student discipline. But members of the committee had to gulp hard when we were presented with the price tag for the detailed approach outlined in the resolution: over $350,000 to pilot the new approach at three schools; more than $2.4 million to extend it to 25 schools.  There was a lot of discussion about how to implement the approach, how start collecting necessary data (like the lost instructional minutes when a child is sent to the office or to sit in the hall!), and how to evaluate the steps we are already taking (for example, the amazing Will Parrish has conducted restorative justice trainings this month with some of our school security personnel).  In the end the budget committee held off action so that the authors can work with staff to refine the resolution and figure out a way to start taking steps towards the goal while minimizing its budget impact.
  • Informational items: Updates on the budget and stimulus funds. We spent so much time talking about the budget, we didn’t even really get to the stimulus funds, but the budget was bad enough. The committee was augmented, which means that other board members can attend and participate even if they are not members of the committee (they just aren’t able to vote), so Commissioners Maufas and Fewer also joined Commissioners Wynns and Yee and myself, which was good because the work to come is going to require that the whole Board pull together. If anything, the outlook has worsened since we approved the 2009-10 budget back in June – once the state’s revised budget was finally completed in July, we sustained additional cuts of $250 per student (over $12 million total) and a $1.6 million cut to transportation. If we don’t make adjustments now, these additional cuts will really hit us hard in 2010-11 and 2011-12, which the Superintendent has been saying all along. But I think tonight it really came home to the Board that we’ve got to start planning for the coming bloodbath. The major tool we have is the new flexibility for over 40 categorical programs that in the past were tailored to very narrow priorities set in Sacramento rather than locally. Flexibility comes at a price — a 2o percent cut in many programs — but it also presents opportunity to really realign our spending around our district’s priorities. A friend likes to tell the story about the last budget crisis a few years ago, when her school lost a librarian and a paraprofessional due to budget cuts. Two years later, the funds were restored, but in the form of playground equipment rather than unrestricted monies to restore the positions that had been lost.  My colleague Commissioner Wynns has been quoted as saying that categorical funding restrictions are like, in many cases, “buying curtains for a house you’re burning down.” The moral is, if we play our cards right and are smart about how we use this flexibility, we may be able to blunt the worst of what is coming. Still, I think a number of us were concerned enough to wonder whether we started this process early enough; Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh said the priority has been to continue the pace of reform, and not cut back too much too soon. We’ll see. I encourage people who want to be informed about this very difficult debate start to attend our budget commitee meetings this Fall – generally scheduled for the third Wednesday of each month (next meeting should be Sept. 16) .

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