Budget crisis 2011-2012: Q&A with John Lee Evans

Posted by John Evans at 6/25/2011 10:00:00 PM

The budget process seems to go on forever. When will it be approved?
We are required to submit a budget by June 30, 2011.  Even though the state has not approved its budget, we must give final approval to our balanced budget at the Tuesday, June 28 Board meeting.  It's a crazy system.  To further complicate matters we are constantly borrowing money (and paying interest!) on the open credit markets, because the state delays giving us our money for many months.
 
We were told by the money lenders that if we increase our spending from our original severe March plan, we could jeopardize our chances of getting a loan. The state budget msut be first signed, sealed and delivered.  So we must wait until the state acts to make any changes to our budget. At the board meeting I said it is like making a decision with a gun to the head. Without the loan we could not pay all of our bills in July.  We need a more stable financing system for California public education!
 
Music is vital to our kids' education.  What are you doing to support VAPA?
At the June 21 board meeting I and all other board members voted to restore VAPA and other music positions. We were not allowed to spend any extra money, so we had to look for cuts elsewhere for the $1.5 million to restore VAPA.
 
One of the things we did was to eliminate two Area Superintendent positions. When we have to reduce teachers and classified staff we must eliminate positions at the very top, too.  I strongly believe that music is part of the core curriculum and not an "enrichment activity." In a very difficult year we will still hear music in our schools.
 
Do the right thing.  Vote to rescind all layoff notices and protect our children's education.  They are our future.
The Board of Education is given two key responsibilities:
 
1) to safeguard and provide the best possible education for our children and
2) to do this within a balanced budget.
 
I, like most members of the board, ran for school board because I was interested in #1 and not so much in #2.  Unfortunately, these two responsibilties are in conflict now.  So we have to do the best we can within what we are given.  The federal government can print money.  The state government can raise taxes.  We can do neither. If we as the elected representatives do not make the tough decisions, appointed representatives step in to make those decisions.  The buck stops here.
 
I spoke to a group of 5th graders at Central Elementary and tried to explain to them what many adults in denial do not want to think about.  I pulled 10 dollar bills out of my wallet and said I wanted to buy 3 things that cost 5 dollars each.  How do I decide?
 
On June 21 we could have taken the "bold" stand of approving a lot of spending to recall employees (on paper), but it would be meaningless.  It would have prevented us from getting our loan and we would not even be able to pay all of our bills in July, much less in September.
 
You are asking everyone else to sacrifice. With your high salary and comfortable position what are YOU doing to help the situation?
 
I, along with all Board members, took a cut in pay of 2.7% rather than taking off furlough days.  By the way, the salary for Board members is about $339 per week.  The time commitment for me ranges anywhere from about 20 to 35 hours per week, including official meetings, conferences with staff, school visits, several hours of study of board documents, etc.  Those hours are instead of working at my other job as a psychologist. By the way, the Board President spends a lot more time on this job than I do--for the same pay.
 
Prior to being on the school board I had paid for my own healthcare. I continued that practice rather than accepting a fully paid plan from the district.  Estimated savings to the district by declining healthcare: $12,000.
 
Board members also save money by having no individual staff in contrast to city council members.  We answer our own emails and other tasks pertinent to individual members.
 
I worked in support of Proposition J, which would have provided nearly $50 million for this problem, which we foresaw last July.  Unfortunately, it did not pass with a 2/3 vote.  I bet it would pass today when people realize how tight things are.
 
I have gone to Sacramento and Washington to advocate for specific funding to help our schools.  I set up an Emerency School Supplies Fund to simply provide a place for Prop J supporters and others to contribute if they so desire.
 
Other people have made more sacrifices than I.  We have a Superintendent who works day and night and I can always find him in the office on the weekend.
 
The budget numbers from the district keep changing.  How are we to believe any of the numbers?
When I was first elected to the Board, I was highly distrustful of the numbers from the Finance Office, and rightfully so.  It was not a straightforward, transparent process.  Since then we have hired a new CFO who has the confidence of the Board of Education.  Nevertheless, education finance is extremely complex.  I have encouraged the unions to send over their best auditors to go over the numbers with our CFO.  Of course, the district's books are audited every year by outside agencies, but that is different than the budget building process. 
 
There is a deficit of trust in the district's financial numbers.  That's why I welcome auditors from employees or the community looking over the CFO's shoulders to see if there are other possibilities. Show me the money!
 
 
We never know how much money is coming in one year from the next.  Why are you looking for a two year solution?
In our second year we are facing a big funding cliff even if the state makes no further cuts, because we are consistently spending more than we are receiving.  There are painful truths and difficult trade-offs.  We are all trying to limit the damage of these severe cuts.  For every extra dollar that we spend this year we will have to cut two in the following year (even if we get some increases from the state).  The public and staff are getting weary of this annual distraction.
 
Here is a simple example at the upper administrative level. We chose to reduce the Area Superintendents to six, rather than 8 (or 9 or 10).  For next year we could have kept the Area Superintendents at eight, but in the following year we would probably have to reduce them to four and completely reorganize the district.  The alternative is to have the stability of six for both years for the same amount of money.
 
Similarly, at the school sites I still want to find a way to do some class size reduction, but at a level that would allow us to keep those teachers for two years rather than just rehire for one year and then be back on the chopping block.
 
What was the Barnett-Barrera proposal and why did you support it?
The Barnett-Barrera proposal was more far-reaching than mine.  It was a unique compromise between two board members who are on opposite sides of the political spectrum in an attempt to come up with a long term solution (3 or 4 years out) for San Diego Unified's budget problems. It allowed for increased spending this year to bring back hundreds of teachers and support staff. But it also included asking employees to extend furloughs and to delay pay increases, so that the recalled staff could be employed for more than one year. It also included numerous other cost-cutting measures, such as school closures, elimination of some transportation, a possible bond measure to cover maintenance costs and many more ideas.  It was based on a principle of shared sacrifice by parents, staff and community to keep essential educational programs and reasonable class size.
 
In an attempt to reduce class size and save jobs he school board unanimously agreed to privately ask the unions if they were willing to consider re-opening the contract.The union leaders are democratically elected to speak for their employees.    We all respect the right of the unions to turn down such a proposal, which they did.  But we did feel it was important to ask due to the high level of layoffs.  The Barnett-Barrera proposal became moot, because the concessions were not approved.
 
At the June 21 meeting no major recall of employees was included in the proposed budget.  What was the contingency plan that the Board did approve?
In the event that the Governor's original education budget is approved, the Board voted to spend $32-$36 million dollars to recall some employees.  To recall all employees would cost over $80 million. This plan was to reinstate a fraction of the laid off employees for one year with no funds to keep them for the next year (even with no further cuts to education).  I believe that we need to have full disclosure of the facts, so that no one is surprised next year when this starts all over again.  I preferred a plan that would have called back some teachers for class size reduction, but that would have done it at a lower level that we could keep those teachers for two years, not just one. 
 
What if the state does not provide the funds we are hoping for?
The contingency plan was to restore those positions only if that funding is approved by the state.  However, if it is not, that plan does not go into effect. However, I am still interested in finding some way to restore reasonable class size to those 29 schools that were hardest hit by class size increases in K-3.  These schools have had two effects: increasing class size by as many as 13 additional students and also losing a significant portion of their staff. While this would be a limited restoration across the district, it would help those hardest hit.
 
I'm concerned that we are losing some of my kids' best teachers, because layoffs are based on seniority and not effectiveness. This isn't fair.
What isn't fair is a state funding system for education that moves up and down with every shift in the economy.  What isn't fair is that there should be massive layoffs at all when we are serving the same number of students.  Businesses cut back when they have fewer customers.  Even the California universities cut back on enrollment (lamentably) when funds are tight. We will never turn a student away, no matter how little the state gives us.
 
When was the last time you heard about massive layoffs of nurses or police? Just like teachers, we need them in good economic times and bad.  Before schools relied more on the relative stability of property taxes.  Now we are subject to the bust and boom cycles of income tax and sales tax.
 
Our administrators should be regularly evaluating our teachers.  If a teacher is not performing competently and cannot improve with help, he or she should be removed and replaced--whether or not we are in tight budget times. This is the fault of our district and not the teachers if we keep poorly performing teachers on the payroll.
 
For the record, let me state that the overwhelming majority of our teachers are competent, dedicated and hard-working and deserve our support, not our criticism. If all other factors are equal, then seniority would not be unreasonable for layoff prioity.  But what is unreasonable is to have massive layoffs unless we have a major drop in enrollment.  The sad and ironic truth is that if we as a state continue to underfund education, we will eventually have a massive drop in public school enrollment and will have a real need to lay off teachers.
 
Every year that the district lays off teachers it ends up hiring more in the fall.  Can't attrition help us with our budget problems?
The only way that money is saved in the budget is by eliminating positions: increasing class size or eliminating programs. If someone resigns from a category that is being eliminated or reduced, then one more person can be recalled from the layoff list.  However, if someone in a category that has not been reduced (say, high school physics), they will have to be replaced with a new employee unless a current employee has that credential. Just having teachers resign or retire does not save any money, because they have to be replaced unless their position was eliminated.  Nevertheless, I have been advocating for accurate projections of attrition. We can certainly make a reasonable guess as to how many K-6 teachers will resign or retire over a certain period of time and reduce layoffs accordingly.
 
I have been openly dissatisfied with the performance of our Human Resources department for the past 15 months.  Many employees suffered unnecessarily due to imprecision in the way that layoff notices are issued.  This was identified as an area of weakness in the Superintendent's January evaluation.  We finally have a change at the top in HR.  Lamont Jackson is our Interim Director of Human Resources.  He is starting to give me some of the answers I need to hear.
 
Mr. Jackson and the Superintendent need to make sure that everything possible is being done to ensure that recalled employees are returned to their original position and site. Every employee who can be recalled due to a resignation needs to be notified immediately. I bring this up at almost every board meeting. As one example, I have seen a few resignations/retirements from nurses, so an equal number of nurses on the layoff list need to be recalled.
 
 
You developed a Vision 2020 and Community-Based School Reform, but how is this ever going to happen if you keep cutting?
The latest budget crisis is definitely a setback.  The class of 2020 will be entering fourth grade in September.  They got through with reasonable class size, but much is still at stake, especially for their younger siblings. We cannot ignore long-term planning even in the midst of an economic crisis.
 
1) We have to continue to fight for adequate funding. 2) We have to be creative in how best to make necessary cuts. 3) We also have to focus on no-cost improvements.
 
1) As voters we are responsible for what the legislature and Governor do.  The Governor has taken a bold stand to say "no more gimmicks" to both Democrats and Republicans.
 
2) As we move towards a quality school in every neighborhood, we must make decisions on how to reduce transportation and how to realign schools that are too small. We have made drastic cuts in central office and will continue to look for more savings.  We must sell surplus property that can provide funds for one-time costs, such as technology upgrades.
 
3) Finally, there are no-cost solutions.  We must make sure that the Area Superintendents and central office are providing the support and right attitude to help the school sites make their decisions about quality education.  The principals must tap into the talent and energy of their teachers working collaboratively, rather than relying on expensive outside professional development programs. We must create a culture in which all employees (teachers and support staff) are directly committed to the mission of improving student achievement.