Painful School Budget Cuts Fuel Internal Battle

The truth behind a couple of time-worn axioms was evident last week when the San Diego Unified School District trustees began to wrestle with Supt. Thomas Payzant's recommendations for trimming nearly $8 million more from next year's school district budget. One axiom has to do with whose ox is being gored and the other with which wheel is most likely to get greased.

As heartbreaking as it is to watch programs that are important to many youngsters being eliminated or cut back, it has been interesting to witness some of the same factions who applaud Gov. George Deukmejian when he cuts social services squirm when his blade slices closer to home. It is Deukmejian's tight-fisted education budget that has required the school board to identify more than $10 million in necessary cuts.

Though the Legislature may ultimately change things, at this point it appears that the district will have to operate on $3 million less next year than this year, despite increased enrollment, some inflation--and assuming employees get no pay raise.

The "Squeaky Wheel Award" must surely go to the parents of students in the Gifted and Talented (GATE) program, who organized a letter-writing and lobbying campaign of epic proportions and successfully prevented Payzant from tacking a $400,000 reduction onto a $600,000 loss in state funds. The GATE parents can only be admired for their dedication and drive, though they are unrealistic in expecting the school board to make deeper cuts elsewhere in order make up for the lost state funds for gifted students.

The other area where the board disagreed with Payzant's recommended reductions was the proposed elimination of several minor sports. Though amounting to only $200,000, this seemed to us the weakest part of his target list, doing away with sports such as water polo, swimming, field hockey and golf while letting major, boy-dominated sports go unscathed. A better way would be to trim sports with larger budgets, such as football, perhaps by reducing the size of the squads or cutting back night games for outdoor sports.

Overall, Payzant was sensitive and logical in his recommendations. Now, following the board's instructions, he has to find an additional $500,000 or more in budget reductions, meaning some students whose special interests escaped the first pass will yet be disappointed.

These cannot be pleasant days for the school board members or the administration, all of whom are where they are because they want to help kids, not take opportunities away from them. But with California's system of giving most of the funding authority for education to the state, local officials can do little but try to find more creative ways to divide the pie.

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