San Diego Unified has foregone layoffs, avoided furloughs, and even reversed some unpopular cuts such as making schools share principals or eliminating magnet busing. Now, as the July deadline looms for the budget to be completed, board members are turning to different, sometimes dramatic options in their quest to close the gap.
Trustees John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura believe one answer is to declare impasse with the teachers union. Richard Barrera thinks part of the solution is using up the $52 million of stimulus money, which is meant to cover two years, all at once. And board President Shelia Jackson is invoking one of the most sacred of sacred cows — the stream of buses that carry children northward from schools in the poorest, largely black and Latino areas of the school district — as a potential source of savings.
"It's a nightmare," Barrera said.
After the ballot measures meant to patch together the California budget went down in flames, San Diego Unified now faces a deficit that has skyrocketed from an early estimate of $63 million to a March estimate of $147 million to the figure of $180 million out of its $1.3 billion general fund.
Budget estimates provided by the school district show that even if the board opts to close schools, eliminates programs in Old Town and Balboa Park, cuts back on librarians and makes dozens of other loathed cuts, it will still face a deficit of at least $45 million that it must close through worker concessions — which depend on an agreement with the distrustful teachers union — or through a list of last-resort options. Those include eliminating arts programs, whittling down its emergency reserves or raiding all of the available stimulus money at once.
The lurching numbers are a reversal of the usual budget dance done by California schools, which routinely plan for the worst and then reverse cuts. That was what happened last year, when San Diego Unified warned nearly 1,000 teachers that they could be laid off and later rehired the workers it fired, a tumultuous saga that troubled schools, outraged the union and led to the ouster of one board member.
"Remember last year when the school district was absolutely convinced they had to lay off 900 teachers? They were wrong and we were right," said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union.
Wary of rehashing that scenario, the new school board majority of Barrera, Jackson and John Lee Evans has pushed the district to find savings elsewhere. It opted for a golden handshake to encourage veteran employees to leave the schools, plans to jettison more than 400 temporary teachers whose jobs are not guaranteed at the end of the year, and prodded staff to turn up more than $20 million in cuts to central office staffing and supplies this year that were previously unheard of. But no final decisions have been made to close the $134 million gap that remains on the books.
Barrera, Evans and Jackson "pelt the staff with questions and they deflect the decision-making," said Nakamura, who believes that the school district should have issued layoff notices instead of relying solely on the golden handshake to clear jobs.
School district officials say they are still stripping money from their central offices to avoid as many other cuts as possible. The superintendent announced last week that he is slashing top jobs such as the chief logistics officer, the ethics officer and several of the officers who oversee principals, a handful of titles out of the more than 174 central office jobs slashed this year and 187 cut last year. Independent Budget Analyst Phil Stover has searched out savings by bringing work that was outsourced back into the school district to be done by its workers, but he told the school board Tuesday that there were few savings left to squeeze from administration, calling it "the most intensive budget examination and reduction process that I've ever been involved in." Cuts that do not hurt schools "are done," he said.
Even cuts that seem bloodless on paper, such as changing bell schedules to streamline busing, have provoked outcry. One mother, Lisa Barron, grew agitated as she described the problems spurred by pushing the buses earlier. Two of her triplets have severe autism and need to be dressed, have their diapers changed, and be spoon-fed their breakfasts before catching the bus to a special program at Bayview Terrace Elementary. Proposed changes would push the buses from 7:25am to 6:40am, she said.
"I'm losing sleep over it," Barron said, explaining that it takes over an hour of constant care to prepare the two boys. "I cannot put my two handicapped children on buses in the dark. And a lot of these kids are very medically fragile. They need sleep. It's dangerous for their health." She added, "Why are they causing more suffering and leaving some of the fluff?"
With programs vying to survive, the question of what is fluff — and what is not — is becoming more and more pressing. Jackson, for instance, has hinted that she wants to slash busing that is not required for special education or other legally mandated purposes. Busing is a cornerstone of integration programs in the school district and a valued choice for many parents, but is criticized by other families for pulling children and funding away from schools in disadvantaged areas. More than 20,000 students out of the roughly 135,000 students in San Diego Unified take buses, most of them for integration or for magnet schools.
"If we cut anything it should be our transportation budget," Jackson said in a Tuesday budget workshop. She has yet to formally propose any specific reductions to the busing program. Evans has also pushed for transportation cuts, though his preferred solutions are tied to efficiencies, such as upping the number of students necessary to get a bus route. Eight students on a bus is a problem, he said.
The budget must be finished by July and pass muster with the county superintendent, whose office can make recommendations on how to revise the plans and ultimately take over financial management of the school district if its budget is repeatedly rejected. Problems that could sink the budget include failing to recognize ongoing trends such as declining enrollment, cutting deeply into reserves, or staffing shortages. County office officials said that school districts can include cuts that have yet to be bargained in their budgets, as San Diego Unified did earlier this year, but must include a backup plan as well.
Worried by that threat, Nakamura and de Beck, the minority faction on the school board, have raised the idea of declaring impasse with the teachers union, a step that means that bargaining has ground to a halt. No agreements have been reached so far on more than $80 million in potential cuts that would impact employees, such as upping what they pay at the doctor's office from $5 to $20 to save $7.4 million or cutting all salaries by 3 percent to save $25 million.
The union, which has locked horns repeatedly with Superintendent Terry Grier since he joined the school district more than a year ago, has stated that it distrusts the numbers aired by the school district. Both San Diego Unified and the California Teachers Association are bringing in outsiders to review the numbers in the coming weeks.
"We haven't seen anything that leads us to believe that these sorts of cuts are necessary," Zombro said.
Declaring impasse would begin a long process that would include mediation and fact-finding and could eventually allow the school district to impose changes such as salary cuts without negotiating them with the union, but the process is unlikely to conclude before July. School districts can overrule contracts before that happens if they can argue successfully that doing so is absolutely necessary to their survival, but the legal bar is high, and such a move is unlikely to win over the rest of the school board, which was elected with strong support from the teachers union.
"We're backed up against the wall here," de Beck said at the Tuesday meeting.
Barrera rejected that idea. "That is not an option that is available to us in balancing our budget," he replied.
De Beck later decried that stance in an interview. "The board has so much loyalty to the employees that they are not willing to consider that there are times when cutting back has got to happen," he said. "It's a tragic situation."
Barrera favors the idea of plumbing all of the $52 million in stimulus money meant to save jobs and firm up budgets now, instead of spreading it over the next two years. Similar proposals by the teachers union in Los Angeles have bitterly divided that district. Using all the money now would put the school district at a disadvantage when budgeting next year, but could provide a temporary bailout. Short of finding more unexpected savings in the central office, Barrera said he saw no alternative to raiding the funds. That idea worried Evans. But he could not say that it was off the table.
"I'm not going to swear off anything," he said. "There are too many things we have questions about."
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly pegged the district's budget at $1.3 million rather than $1.3 billion. We regret the error.
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