An easier-to-understand school budget — at only 600 pages

It is a truth universally acknowledged that school district budgets are crazy complicated.
In San Francisco, district officials this year are trying to make all of that more understandable, creating a two-volume budget document that runs 600 pages.

“The district budget should not be a bulky, byzantine, document, only accessible to a select few,” said board member Matt Haney. “It should be a public-facing document, with families, students, and teachers able to read it, navigate it, and understand what it means for their school.”

OK. Sure, 600 pages doesn’t sound simple. But the digital heft is largely a product of how education funding works in California.

For starters, there are several pots of money, with some designated for very specific things like facilities or food. Those are called restricted funds. Others that are more loosey-goosey are called unrestricted funds.

From there, it gets almost undecipherable, with money flowing into  hundreds of school-based and departmental accounts.

The budget documents explaining all this typically include page after page of ledgers with squint-worthy type.

School boards across the state are adopting those behemoth budgets this week to meet a state-mandated June 30 deadline. Rarely are there regular Joe’s and Jane’s at the meetings weighing on line item 341 — Custodial Support within General Fund expenditures for Operational Support.

But this year, the San Francisco document is easier to understand. No, not necessarily easy, but easier.
“The budget is always a challenge to thoroughly understand,” said school board President Sandra Fewer. “However, our budget books have a lot of good, quality information that is very helpful to the understanding of the budget. We have come a long way.”

Basically, there are less wonky explanations of where money comes from and where it goes. And more importantly, there are colored graphics and charts that help too.

“While SFUSD’s budget book has for years provided visual charts and narrative to explain the mechanisms of the budget, our book is now designed to show the reader more easily what our priorities are, what our strategies for success are, and to show how these drive our budget decisions,” said district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson.

It’s a step in the right direction, albeit not perfect, Haney said.

“Getting there is a process, but every year we seem to be doing better, with a greater emphasis on transparency, readability and a clearer narrative explaining how we got here,” he said. “And of course more charts and pictures, because everyone loves pictures!”

The San Francisco school board is expected to pass the 2014-2015 budget Tuesday night.
The short version of it:

The district is proposing to spend $477 million in unrestricted funds (the most flexible and important part of the budget), up $36 million over last year. All told, the entire proposed operating budget is $716 million.

To read Volume I: go here.
To read Volume II: go here.