For the moment, San Diego Unified can pay its staff and keep its lights on. But next year, it’s set to spend $115 million more than it has coming in. And things don’t look much better for 2016.

It gets worse yet. One school board member says that if the district can’t make up enough of its balance by selling off property and shooing teachers into early retirement, hundreds of employees — from janitors to area superintendents — could face the ax.

How could this happen? This situation was hard to imagine back in 2012 when voters passed Prop. Z, a $2.8 billion bond measure that promised to save money by investing in projects that would pay off in the long-run.

And this year Gov. Jerry Brown made good on his promise to inject cash into school districts based on student needs. San Diego Unified is counting on about $260 million through 2021 — about the same time it hopes to clear its debt.

But the new revenue streams aren’t enough to help the district shake off the damage of several years of budget cuts.

Trustee Scott Barnett says the shortfall is a natural result of the past administration’s failure to lead. At the same time the state’s economy tanked, the school board promised salary raises that it didn’t have the revenue to back up, he said.

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In fact, the district is setting aside a chunk of its next budget to deliver on pay raises that teachers deferred to save jobs in 2012.

To close the gap financially, the district is relying on two main strategies: encouraging some staff members to retire early and selling off its land. Those approaches come with a big caveat: They involve scenarios the district largely can’t control. And if they fall short, Barnett predicts it will be time to cut staff.

More Land Sales

To fill the biggest part of its budget hole, the district will double-down on its practice of selling off land.

But the district has a lot of work to do to make up the $80 million it needs to balance the budget, especially since the school board learned on Wednesday that the $22 million sale of one of its properties to High Tech High might not go through.

The missed opportunity highlights the risk of banking on unsold property. And in the past, the district hasn’t been the savviest real estate agent.

Barnett has been the loudest critic of property sales, urging the district to establish a viable stream of revenue by leasing property instead of selling it outright.

Moving forward, San Diego Unified will open up its real estate portfolio to see what other properties can go. But deals can move slowly, and the district has only until June 30 of next year to make the sales for it to count toward that year’s budget.

Early Teacher Retirements

The other major component of this budget balancing-act consists of an early retirement deal for qualifying employees.

The incentive for teachers to leave early is a final year’s salary, which would be paid out over the next five years.

Teachers with the longest tenures are generally the most expensive, so the district would spend less in the long-run. Taken together, the San Diego Unified hopes to save $8.3 million.

And some teachers have an extra incentive to say goodbye: Common Core. Barnett said he’s heard whispers that long-tenured teachers would rather leave than learn a new system. He also said it might be easier to train new teachers who are open to new methods.

But the plan won’t work unless 547 teachers take the early retirement deal. That’s the number the district needs to make a profit. If that number isn’t reached, the offer will be rescinded.

Those most likely to be impacted are classified employees like Sarah Archer, who works as a special education aid at McKinley Elementary.

For less than $12 an hour, Archer moves from the classroom to playground-duty and back again. A big part of her time is spent helping teachers break students into smaller groups in the classroom, so they receive more individual attention.

She says she keeps the job because she loves the work — and the health benefits don’t hurt. But Archer said few people realize classified employees’ role in classrooms.

“We’re really the grease that keeps schools running so teachers can teach,” she said.

Barnett says currently the budget picture is just a snapshot the district’s balance. Next month, the school board will hear an update and learn how many people have opted for early retirement.

Layoffs would be the worst-case scenario, Barnett said, but they’re a real possibility.

“We have to pay our bills,” he said. “And there really isn’t anything else that can be cut.”

    This article relates to: Education, News, School Bonds, School Finances, School Leadership, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario asks questions and writes stories about San Diego schools. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    Richard Bagnell
    Richard Bagnell subscriber

    If you wanted to help the students, protect the taxpayers, and reduce the number of teachers, just make the school day a hour longer and teachers would retire without a pay out..... 

    DDunn subscriber

    Mr. Barnett's reasons for withdrawing from re-election notwithstanding, he sure is getting out at a good time. I applaud his arguments against high risk, short term solutions - Mission Bay will soon be a mess, so goes outside developers. As for the teacher retirement incentive - the last one allowed teachers a 2 year window to decide. Out of the needed 300, 80 teachers bought in - now the board is looking for over 500. A re-attempt the second year also failed. Good luck.

    There is also the question of an annuitized incentive. My questions would be: Who is carrying the annuity, when is the district required to actually pay into it, what is the age of first withdrawal, and what kind of fees are attached. The fear is for the "quick to jump" teachers to get really screwed!!!

    As for Common Core - please show a little respect for the long term and experienced teachers. We are much more adaptable than you think.

    Keep in mind that consequences of decisions made now are barely felt down the line and years later.

    But who cares...!


    Bruce Bogers
    Bruce Bogers subscriber

    More than likely they will go with one or more of their usual fallback solutions....#1 Screw the kids, or #2 Screw the teachers, or #3 Screw the taxpayers. Seems they never consider cutting their own pay or benefits though.

    SherryS subscriber

    This is why we have got to change the way schools are funded and make sure that local property taxes that are supposed to go to education actually get there.  Every year $7 billion in property taxes that are supposed to be allocated to schools never get there because the state takes the money and uses it for other things.  Check out Educate Our State,, to learn about a parent led, grass routes organization that is trying to fix this problem.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    History repeating itself but with the twist of the land sales, long term asset liquidation for short term expenses, that won't be there next time.

    Only question is when will the district be back pleading poverty again? My guess is within 2 years.

    And of course the new funding formula put in place for the schools because the districts and teachers will be required to up their contributions to the CALSTRS retirement system within the next two years.

    Only thing that makes sense is the early buyout. The older teachers would be would be wise to jump all over that one.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Is there ever a queue of cars waiting to pick up or drop off children at school? That's something that could easily be monetized with a little congestion pricing. As a bonus, it would also eliminate traffic congestion. So that's two benefits for the price of one, and who doesn't like two-for-one deals?

    Another opportunity to save money is to replace bus drivers with walking school buses and bicycle trains.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Sounds just like last year's news.


    "Another Brick in the Wall"

    ScrippsDad subscriber

    Let us not forget that to balance a budget that is running at a loss, you also need to be sure that you do not INCREASE expenses. If you do, then it takes even more early retires and property sales (given that for this article these are the two highlighted strategies for balancing the budget).

    So - think about this, remember that we are in a negotiating year for the CBA for the SDEA (translates to bargaining on a new collective bargaining agreement for the teachers union due later this year). Also, take note, the new CBA will go on for years while the property sales are one time events so they do not solve the ongoing budget shortfall problem as a fiduciary strategy for a balanced budget either now or into the future.

    In the sprit of trying to balance a budget and not increase expenses, take a look at this:$file/SDEA%20Letter%20of%20Initial%20Proposal.pdf

    Remember, the SDEA mission is to protect adults and NOT children.

    Just a few interesting Articles to take a gander at:

    Article 7 - increase pay  (before the layoffs, the average teacher salary was 67K for 9 months of work, 4% increases for 17 years regardless of performance (Step and Column), tenure after 2 years, 10% paid to retirement, full medical benefits for SDEA member, spouse and all dependents with a minimal co-pay

    Article 9 - increase benefits - not sure how you increase free medical for SDEA member, spouse and all dependents with very minimal co-pays, but, I guess if your the SDEA, you'll try and find a way

    Article 12 - transfers

    Article 13 - more teachers - spend even more money on compensation and add more SDEA members

    Article  32 - spend even more on teacher wages

    Article 33 - think its hard to write a teacher up now? How's this for protection. Wait for this. Always late for work - gotta go through the grievance procedures taking away local administrative authority. In the last 5 years (or more) the total number of Certified employees (SDEA members) terminated from a pool of over 8,000 was......... 5.

    So - what will the Board and the negotiating committee due in light of negotiating the CBA and the budget shortfalls described in this article.

    Time will tell us where the priorities lie.... let the discussion begin.....

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @ScrippsDad   When you have a problem like this, you must take decisive action to solve it.  Wisconsin governor Scott Walker did that and survived quite nicely.  Recommended reading:  Walker’s recent book “Unintimidated”, far from a literary masterpiece but quite explicit on what needs to be done and how to do it. 

    Oh, wait, this is California!  There’s got to be a law preventing public employees being required to pick up a significant part of their benefit costs.

    As for the referenced link, which is the opening proposal from the teachers union, I’ve seen a lot of these because I’ve negotiated a number of union contracts on the management side.  I’ve never seen one this vague and so full of pie-in-the-sky.  E.g., the first item reads “Increase wages to the median or higher quartiles with comparable county and state districts that will attract and retain the highest quality educators”.

    Say, what?  How do you respond to something like this?  Are we talking about median salary ranges or actual salaries paid?  Does the district have a turnover problem?  If so, first I’ve heard, in fact they’re trying to get more senior teachers to retire early.  Who is going to determine the agencies that comprise the “median” salary?  I’ll bet the union has a list.  What is “higher quartiles” supposed to mean, that the median of selected districts isn’t sufficient?

    A proposal like this doesn’t deserve a response.  The administration should simply ignore it and make it’s own proposal, starting with a substantial increase in employee contributions to the benefit programs to make them comparable to what private sector employees are now paying.     

    -P subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw @ScrippsDad  Seems to me private sector employees should demand a substantial increase to their benefits program. They are being ripped off.

    -P subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw @ScrippsDad   Private sector employees should be demanding better better benefits programs and better pensions - something more akin to what they were getting back in the 60s, back the the minimum wage was, in today's dollars, at least $9.22