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Sweetwater Classroom Shakeups Affecting Students This Year and Next

Bonita Vista High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Sweetwater Union High School District students will experience new hits to the classroom starting as early as this school year. Principals have also received proposed staffing allocations for next year, which include the elimination of major school level positions.

Midyear changes in the way the district allocates money to schools will result in most schools districtwide receiving less money from the district office in the spring semester than originally planned. The changes will allow the district to achieve immediate savings, but a district spokesman disputed that the changes have anything to do with the district’s ongoing budget crisis.

Sweetwater has been under intense pressure to find any savings it can in recent months, after state officials told the district to get its finances in order [1].

Sweetwater overspent in its budget by $30 million [2] during the 2017-2018 school year, as first revealed by Voice of San Diego. One state agency accused the district of knowingly covering up the overspending [3] and, indeed, multiple finance workers did try to raise alarms about the budget [4]. Sweetwater is now under investigation by state officials and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission [5].

Aside from the midyear budget changes this year, district officials in Sweetwater are also proposing cutting several major positions from school sites next year. Principals across the district received news that they are currently slated to lose funding for academic intervention coordinators, athletic directors, attendance coordinators and some resource teachers.

“[The losses] would be huge,” said Kristin Phatak, a parent at Eastlake High School, who serves on the school site council. “Our attendance person helps make sure students are coming to school, which helps the school get more money. Because if a child is absent, the school doesn’t get the money. Why would they take away an attendance coordinator, that’s insane!”

So far the changes for next year are only proposals, said district spokesman Manny Rubio. Any official changes that take place will have to be approved by Sweetwater’s Board of Trustees.

Current projections indicate Sweetwater needs to slash more than $20 million from its budget next year to avoid going into a negative fund balance.

At Bonita Vista High School, the district has proposed eliminating funding for its International Baccalaureate coordinator, said Jared Phelps, who holds the position. (International Baccalaureate, or IB, is a highly regarded program that requires certification from an international organization.)

“My students, my colleagues, my classes, my program have been wonderful … But this year has been filled with trauma,” wrote Phelps on Facebook [6]. “I’m tired and I’m disheartened that the district would consider de-funding a program that has been running for 35 years.”

The midyear allocation change that will affect schools this year is complicated. Here’s how it will work:

School districts often calculate enrollment at each school early in the year. Next they often apply an expected attrition rate, which assumes that some students will fall off the rolls. Districts then fund schools based on that lower number.

What’s unique about Sweetwater’s decision is that it is reducing schools’ budgets, based on expected attrition, mid-school year. That means principals will need to adjust their master schedules. Some classes may be collapsed, other teachers will lose resource periods and coaches may be asked to teach more classes instead of plan for their athletic programs. Students may end up with new teachers.

Principals may be able to manage many of the changes smoothly, but ultimately student’s lives and schedules could be disrupted.

Some classes at Eastlake High were consolidated [7], as 10News reported.

“When this all started they promised it would not reach the classroom,” said Kathleen Cheers, a community member whose children attended school in the district. “The majority of the cutbacks are all affecting the students. You can ask any parent.”

Rubio pointed out that schools regularly need to change class schedules due to the ebb and flow of students throughout the school year. Some students move, others change classes, he said.

While Rubio acknowledged that the midyear reallocation was new and unique, he said that district officials are instituting the change because they believe it’s the right way to divvy out resources – not because they are trying to pinch pennies.

“Ultimately, we have to make the adjustment anyway. Why not make it now and deal with it now – as opposed to having to deal with it later on?” said Rubio. “We asked principals to do the best they can.”

Sweetwater is set to end the current school year roughly $5 million in the red. It will also fail to meet the legal requirement that it keep a cash reserve of roughly $10 million.

For months the district had hoped to save millions of dollars by pushing teachers to take two furlough days this school year. The district’s teachers have not relented to the request, which means the district has to find other ways to save.

Next year, the district plans to adjust its attrition factor even further. It plans to add a “declining enrollment” factor, which would further decrease principals’ allocations.

“If implemented the district would not be meeting their contractual obligations, and [the Sweetwater Education Association] would find it necessary to take action,” said Julie Walker, the president of Sweetwater’s teachers union.