Early last year, San Diego Unified leaders seemed almost cavalier about the $124 million budget shortfall facing the district. In a February press release , board members and Superintendent Cindy Marten celebrated a balanced budget and assured people student-teacher ratios would not increase. Cuts would stay away from classrooms, they said.
Two months into the new school year, however, it appears those cuts have had a devastating effect on almost every aspect of school operations.
The results of a new survey  of principals, vice principals and central office managers across the district paint a picture of schools in chaos. Clerical positions have gone vacant. The district slashed custodial staff. It is not resolving tech problems at schools. All those stresses are falling on school principals.
Principals also reported they feel like they cannot voice their concerns – and one said when she did, she was rebuked.
Donis Coronel, executive director of the Administrators Association of San Diego City Schools, the union that conducted that survey and that represents school administrators, said principals are expected to complete more work, handle new initiatives and make do with fewer staff members.
“In my 38 years of experience with the district, I’ve seen some tough years, but this is the toughest I’ve seen,” said Coronel. “We knew it was going to be ugly, but we didn’t know the exact impact until the school year started.”
More than 76 percent of all elementary, middle and high school principals who completed the survey said they have to work more hours in a day than they did last year. More than 63 percent of that same group said their workload has grown to the point where they cannot successfully complete all tasks asked of them.
“I believe we will see a higher than ever number of physical and mental breakdowns from school admin with the drastic cut backs of on-site support. Student safety is a concern as well,” wrote one middle school principal.
“Truly thinking of other career options. Stress of the job the last two years is not worth it. Used to love my job. Not so much, now,” wrote another.
Responding to a question about the five most serious work problems they’ve encountered since July, one high school principal wrote: “Time spent trying to get appropriately staffed. I was trying to find my own teacher … calling universities, education professors, etc. Time spent repeatedly requesting the same work be done over and over without work getting completed … It’s insane and a tremendous amount of wasted time to get nothing done!”
“Our superintendent gives a lot of lip service about work-life balance. Is she even aware what is really going on or who is she trying to convince? … Morale is at an all-time low. Even worse than under those idiots Grier and Bersin,” wrote an elementary school principal, referring to former San Diego Unified superintendents Terry Grier and Alan Bersin.
One high school principal simply wrote: “Help!”
Coronel presented the results of the survey to district leaders earlier this month. Cheryl Hibbeln, the district’s director of secondary schools, provided this statement through a district spokeswoman:
“After receiving the results of the workload study from our partners at AASD, we worked with the superintendent and our executive leadership team to immediately consider and respond to the items raised in this report. Our first action was to adjust an upcoming professional development session to include a forum to allow our secondary leaders an opportunity to provide immediate feedback to district leadership and collaborate on proposed solutions to address the concerns.”
District leaders will continue to provide opportunities for principals and vice principals to give feedback, Hibbeln said.
“They have been responsive to the survey, which is a step in the right direction,” Coronel said. “The disappointment, I would say, is that it shouldn’t have taken a survey to open their eyes to this problem.”
For those outside the day-to-day trenches of public schools, it’s hard to picture the complex role of a school principal.
Principals are both instructional leaders – responsible for walking through classrooms, evaluating and coaching teachers – as well operational managers, who fill staff vacancies, balance budgets and make sure the facilities are in order.
“They’re basically running a small city,” Coronel said. “They’re not like the old-school, figurehead principal of 20 years ago. Over the years, the job has evolved to be much more intense, much more focused on instruction. And when principals are spending so much time on operational issues, that’s time they don’t get to spend on instructional issues.”
But increasingly, principals in San Diego Unified find themselves covering for vacant positions, performing clerical duties or even cleaning up vomit. This year, several factors have converged in what Coronel calls “the perfect storm.”
Here are several themes that run through the survey:
Lack of Support From Human Resources
The district’s HR department plays a key role in identifying positions that need to be filled and finding qualified staff to fill them. And the fact that so many positions were eliminated, in part because the district offered educators an incentive to retire early, means the department has many spots to fill this year.
But the HR department itself lost positions, so it has fewer staff members to do more work. The result is that positions go vacant for longer periods of time.
Additionally, classified supervisors go through a “bumping process,” based on seniority, similar to teachers. Senior staff members whose positions are eliminated can bump junior staff members into a less coveted-position. Sometimes, the same person can be forced to move to a new position after a few short months, multiple times a year, Coronel said. As a result, principals are spending more of their time covering for vacant positions and training new hires.
Lack of Tech Support
The district’s IT department is another casualty of the cuts. That means schools are having to sometimes wait weeks to resolve tech problems. And tech problems turn into instructional problems if teachers are reliant on technology in the classroom, like the smart boards the district added to classrooms a few years ago.
Not Enough Staff or Time for Special Education Duties
Students with disabilities usually have Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs – legal documents that guarantee certain services or accommodations, based on the kind of disability. Educators are bound by law to hold regular meetings to review each student’s progress.
In addition to staffing concerns – which has caused the district to use interns to teach some special education classes  and even ask parents to help fill aide positions – principals are having to attend IEP meetings themselves. Those meetings last at least an hour – often longer, depending on the severity of student’s needs, and the questions a parent might have.
Principals used to share these responsibilities with vice principals. But this year, 35 schools lost vice principals. So the responsibility at those schools falls, again, on the principal.
Principals also report a general disconnect between district leaders and the principals at school sites. New initiatives are handed down before principals have time to implement the old ones.
It is ironic: Marten is a former elementary school principal who vaulted to the district’s top spot in 2013. She made valuing principals and selecting them well her highest priority.
Coronel said Marten’s inexperience as an executive of a school district, along with the inexperience of others on her senior leadership team, stands out now compared with past difficult budget cycles.
“I remember other years we suffered bad cuts. But in those cases I feel like the cuts were managed more efficiently. Some district leaders haven’t been through this before, and I think the cuts were looked at in terms of dollar amounts instead of considering the impacts of specific cuts. I don’t know how much of a plan there was,” she said.
This year’s cuts seem to have been with an ax instead of a scalpel, in other words. The priority to maintain class sizes meant that other services were decimated.
And one more thread principals voiced in the survey is even harder to quantify: a culture that discourages principals from speaking out.
“This job is hard enough (without) feeling the added pressure of always wondering when the noose will fall around your neck,” one middle school principal said in the survey. “We shouldn’t be afraid to have opinions, be frustrated and want our voices heard.”
Coronel said she’s not aware of any rule imposed on principals that prevents them from speaking to the press or members of the public, but said some principals may themselves adopt that rule out of concern for retribution.
But Liz Larkin, who retired as principal of East Village High at the end of last school year, did speak freely – both with the press and general public. And she faced hostility as a result.
Last year, VOSD visited Larkin’s school to report on the prevalence of cheating in online classes . Shortly after the story published, Larkin said she got an early morning phone call from her supervisor.
“I was told I had done great damage to both my school and the district for letting a reporter into my school, and was informed the superintendent would be paying me a visit and walking through the school in the very near future,” she said. It was the end of the year, and Larkin retired before the meeting took place.
“Principals are scared that if they speak out, they’ll get demoted. A high school principal might get bumped down to be a vice principal at an elementary school, for example. If they don’t like you, they’ll get rid of you. This is not normal,” she said.