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School board shifts to new budget process

A major fiscal crisis looming for the next academic year led San Diego Unified School District Board of Education members Tuesday to call for a new way to develop its budget.

A consensus of the board at a budget workshop requested that financial staffers come up with ways to implement a zero-based budget system, rather than the standard baseline form of budgeting used by most public agencies. None of the five members spoke against the idea.

Zero-based budgeting will allow the spending plan to be built from the ground up to incorporate the board’s top educational priorities, instead of starting at a planned level of funding and cutting back programs or employees because of poor economic conditions.

District officials expect a funding shortfall from the state of as much as $120 million in the budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

“It will take a monumental effort to meet this deficit,’' board President Shelia Jackson said.

The board gravitated toward zero-based budgeting after they were presented with a set of cuts proposed by an employee team that examined the finances of 123 central office departments.

“Even with zero-based budgeting, those cuts are going to be there,” board member John Lee Evans said.

Board member Richard Barrera said they will have to allocate to individual schools whatever per-student funding is provided to the district by the state, less the amount required for central office support, and state or federally mandated programs.

The board scheduled another budget workshop for Dec. 16 and asked financial staff to develop at least a framework of switching to the new system by then.

Former Superintendent Terry Grier advocated a zero-based budgeting program about a year ago. Interim Superintendent William Kowba said he didn’t believe anything ever came of the idea.

Kowba and two district finance executives told board members they can’t make a budgeting sea-change immediately, but the new system could be in place by the time the 2010-11 budget is adopted next spring.

“It has to get done, it really has to,” Jackson said.

Zero-based budgeting has traditionally been backed by supporters of limited government who believe the baseline system fuels spending growth. A move in that direction would be a radical departure for a school board that has a 3-2 majority of union-backed members.

San Diego Gas & Electric provided a small amount of budget relief by presenting the district with a check for $40,785.

The money was an award to the district for helping the utility find economically disadvantaged customers who weren’t aware that they qualified for 20 percent energy discounts.

More than 2,700 families within district boundaries with students who receive free or reduced price meals at school were found by SDG&E and the district. The company gave the district $15 for each qualifying family.