THE BLOG

Follow the Money to 1651 16th Street

10/18/2010 04:23 pm 16:23:42 | Updated May 25, 2011

To discover any person or group's true priorities, watch where the money goes.

Sadly, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education continues to define itself by a poorly developed budget that places the highest priority on preserving the status quo at SMMUSD's 16th Street headquarters. Reduced state and federal funding means that cuts have to be made somewhere. In our district the classroom -- the heart of education -- is starting to suffer.

The root of the problem lies in SMMUSD's automatic, mechanical budgeting system. Administrators and the school board simply base budgeting decisions on the previous year's funding level in each category. That method assumes the previous year's funding level is still justified, regardless of any financial or operational changes that may have occurred during the year, or over-budgeting that may have occurred in prior years. The result: departments receiving excessive funding continue receiving it, year after year.

Zero-based budgeting requires financial decision makers to justify expenditures each fiscal year, for all or selected categories. If SMMUSD used zero-based budgeting on non-classroom budget categories, excesses would be found, and the funds could be diverted back to the classroom.

How can I make this claim? After studying the SMMUSD budget and budgets of comparable districts, I have already found excesses.

For the current fiscal year, even after suffering a 4.8 percent drop in revenues, SMMUSD has allocated the same funding as previous years for a number of non-classroom-related areas:

  • With 58 teachers, reading specialists, librarians, music instruction and all the other 7.1 million in cuts, the 2010-2011 SMMUSD General Administration Expenditure budget actually increased 4.5 percent from the previous year, from $6.6 million to $6.9 million. (source: www.smmusd.org).
  • The most recently reported numbers show the SMMUSD spending $812,293 on Centralized Data Processing vs. $89,086 spent in the comparable, neighboring Las Virgenes Unified School District. Does the SMMUSD really process more than nine times as much data as Las Virgenes, which has the same number of students? Or pay nine times more to process the same amount of data? Shouldn't the board have looked into this huge disparity before cutting teachers and programs?
  • SMMUSD personnel costs (defined as recruiters, accountants, and HR personnel, among others) have remained virtually unchanged at $2.05 million since 2008-2009. SMMUSD spends 70 percent more per pupil in this non-classroom area than Las Virgenes, according to the most recent budget numbers available. Why does SMMUSD maintain such high spending in personnel, which includes "recruiting," while laying off 50 plus classroom teachers and classified staff? (source: www.cde.ca.gov)
  • The SMMUSD 2010-2011 $391,000. Las Virgenes plans to spend $222,158 in this area -- 43 percent less. For the past three budget cycles, the disparity has been about the same.
These are just a few examples -- I'm sure there are others. Even if explanations exist for one or more of these excesses, why hasn't any present board member (the board president is a CPA) even asked about them? Why has no present administrator offered any explanation?

Why is the board retaining personnel recruiters and spending almost one percent of the total budget on data processing -- while class sizes are increased, our internationally renowned music program is whittled down, and many other student-serving personnel are laid off? Zero-based budgeting makes sure this type of question is raised.

Questions must be asked and answered during a public process, so the community can make sure that district leaders shift their budget priorities from district headquarters to the classroom. To keep our schools strong, the school board can't just pay lip service to a classroom focus. The board must put our money where their mouth is.