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After Massive Staff Departures, San Diego Unified's Overall Spending Is Only Down $8 Million

After a tumultuous year of staffing cuts and early retirements, San Diego Unified’s overall spending is only down $8 million because of rising costs for things like pensions and health care. Next year, the district must cut another $47 million.

Parents, teachers and community members attend a San Diego Unified school board meeting. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

In many ways, the staffing cuts at San Diego Unified this year have had a huge impact: Principals say they’re stressed by staffing shakeups and in some cases are even forced to do janitors’ work, and parents worry kids aren’t safe in understaffed special education classrooms.

But in one important way, they’ve had less of an impact: on the district’s overall finances.

Despite efforts to decrease district spending by $124 million, budget records show total general fund expenses this school year are expected to come in just $8.67 million lower than last year, dropping from about $1.37 billion to $1.36 billion.

An even smaller difference exists when looking just at the unrestricted money in the general fund, the portion school districts have the most control over. Spending there is down by less than $4.7 million, records show.

Here’s a look at the district’s total annual general fund revenues and expenses since 2008, plus the district’s latest projections through 2020.

How could total expenses have dropped by less than $9 million after a tumultuous year of cuts?

Here’s what the budget numbers show: Deep cuts to employee salaries are being offset by increased spending elsewhere.

Employee salaries dropped by $65 million this year, but employee benefits rose by $32.4 million, partly due to an early retirement incentive paid out over five years. Costs for pensions and health care are also growing.

Here’s what all employee costs in the general fund look like, compared to total expenses.

And here’s how general fund pension costs alone have climbed in recent years.

But budget records show other spending is also up this year.

Combined spending on books and supplies, buildings and services rose by nearly $23.6 million, offsetting other cuts.

Here’s how those major general fund expenses have changed year to year.

Now the district will be forced to cut again, to the tune of $47 million.

This month, the school board greenlit $47 million in new cuts to the central office and central support services, which include employees sent out to schools, like nurses, technology support workers, custodians, bus drivers and others — some of the same jobs lost this year.

Few details are being offered about the new anticipated cuts, and district officials said more will be known after the governor’s proposed state budget is released in January.

Without a large, unexpected increase in revenue from the state, though, more layoffs of some kind are likely.

The district’s latest budget report shows $13.4 million in employee salary reductions between this school year and next year. Employee benefits are also projected to drop by nearly $22.7 million, despite escalating pension and health care costs.

This month, San Diego Unified officials gave their budget a positive certification for the first time in several years. The label reflects strong fiscal health and an ability to pay the bills this year and the next two years. But first, millions more need to be cut.

“We will balance this budget and we have already started these conversations,” Greg Ottinger, the district’s new chief business officer, told the school board Dec. 12. “Our priority is to minimize direct cuts to sites.”

As required by law, the San Diego County Office of Education will review San Diego Unified’s budget and projections, and comment in January.

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