Earlier this week, parents, students and teachers – several of them in tears – lined up at San Diego Unified school board meeting to protest cuts coming to schools.
Parents pleaded with trustees to rethink changes to the special education department. Teachers passionately argued to keep their jobs. It was a snapshot of democracy in action. And it was all to little avail.
School board members listened patiently to complaints before voting 5-0 to cut 890 positions  in order to plug a $124 million shortfall.
The San Diego Union-Tribune outlined some of the cuts  on the table. Those include “dozens of noon duty assistants, 10 certified occupational therapy assistants, licensed mental health clinicians, Head Start employees, library assistants, arts instructors, police, counselors, library clerks, food service workers, custodians and occupational therapy specialists, their assistants and many other positions.” And you can see more positions on the chopping block on this district document .
The district also published a roundup of frequently asked questions  in which it tries to explain why it’s facing a shortfall now and why it agreed to raise pay for teachers when the budget was already strapped.
At this point, it’s hard to say exactly which positions, and how many of them, will actually get cut. The district has until March 15 to send layoff notices to employees, and some of those could be rescinded if the state sends more money to the district. (This has happened in the past, but officials say it’s unlikely this time around.)
Despite the lack of clarity, or maybe because of it, parents and teachers directed their anxieties to school board members, and some questioned whether the district is doing enough to cut first from the top, as officials have pledged to do.
As it’s done in the past, the district is offering an incentive for long-tenured (and more expensive) educators to retire early. It’s not clear how much money the incentive could save, but the district hopes the move will shrink the budget gap and soften cuts to classrooms.
There’s one avenue to potential cost savings, however, the district doesn’t seem to have explored – perhaps because it’s one of the most controversial and least popular moves in the book: closing schools.
Why Closing Schools Is a Non-Starter
Parents and students grow deeply attached to their neighborhood schools. Some families have attended the same school for generations and see them as a part of neighborhood fabric.
Add that to the fact that closing schools usually comes with a loss of positions, and you’ve got a recipe for passionate pushback. One former member of the district’s audit and finance committee compared closing neighborhood schools to committing political suicide .
But operating small or under-enrolled schools is expensive. Because funding follows students, schools with fewer students generate less money. But even with fewer students, the district still has to pay for principals, office staff and custodians – not to mention the basic heating and repair costs that come with keeping a school operational.
That becomes even more relevant when enrollment drops, like what’s been happening in San Diego Unified for the past 16 years . In 2000, 142,000 students attended district schools. By last year, that dropped to 129,000.
San Diego Unified has, in the past, kicked around the idea of closing schools with low enrollment  amid budget turmoil:
“In 2005, San Diego Unified estimated that an elementary school with less than 400 students costs roughly $400,000 that could be saved if the school were closed. Thirty-six elementary schools currently enroll fewer than 400 students in pre-kindergarten and higher, at a net cost of $14.4 million.”
Those numbers haven’t changed much. This year, too, 36 elementary schools in the district operate with fewer than 400 students.
That’s not to say all those schools would be slotted for closure even if the district were to consider it. Some of those schools, like Jefferson Elementary , have made gains in the past few years and officials would be loath to close them while they were on the way up.
So district officials would likely take other elements into consideration, like a school’s enrollment capacity and the degree to which schools are under-enrolled, as well as a school’s location. For example, if two schools were each filled to half-capacity, and located a mile apart, it would make sense to combine students from both and close one down.
Just over half, or 52 percent , of the students at Silver Gate Elementary in Point Loma come from outside the neighborhood. Roughly one mile away is Sunset View Elementary, where 57 percent of the students come from outside the neighborhood. In theory, at least, those students could be combined and the schools wouldn’t have to worry about attracting enough students from outside the area just to keep their seats filled.
That’s just one example of how this could work – but again, this isn’t likely to happen under the current school board.
School board president Richard Barrera told me this week that years ago, the district formed a task force to analyze the potential savings closing schools would bring. The task force came up with a list of roughly a dozen schools that could be potentially closed.
That put a lot of stress and on the staff members who ran the numbers and provoked a lot of anxieties among parents, he said. And when the numbers came back, they realized that even with all the pain school closures would cause, the savings weren’t all that significant. Even if the district closed all 36 small elementary schools and saved $14 million, that wouldn’t put a dent in the $124 million shortfall the district is currently facing, he said.
“The mistake I made was even allowing that process to go forward for analysis,” Barrera said.
And there’s one more big reason why Barrera thinks the savings wouldn’t pencil out in the long run: “I think the real risk of closing a school is that those students leave the district and go to a charter school or a school in another district,” he said.
Under the terms of Prop. 39, which voters passed in 2000, school districts must provide charter schools with space  in district facilities if they’re not being used by traditional schools. So if a school were to close, a charter school could then apply to move in.
“Then you’ve lost those students for good,” Barrera said.
In other words, avoiding school closures becomes an effective way of blocking charter schools from moving into those facilities.
In recent years, the number of students leaving San Diego Unified schools for charters has steadily risen. This year, roughly 20 percent of district student attend charter schools, and the district trying to improve customer service to stem further losses .
Of course, if charter schools did move into empty facilities it could help the district generate revenue. Charter schools pay the school district 3 percent of their revenue for rent and oversight. But, Barrera argues, should more students leave district schools for charters, the loss of the state funding that’s tied to students would overshadow whatever the move would bring in.
Meanwhile, the district continues to move ahead with its plans to renovate facilities and build more new schools, like one planned for Mission Valley  and the planned renovation of Memorial Prep, which Barrera estimated will cost over $100 million  and will likely be the most expensive project in district history. That money will come from Props. S and Z, two voter-approved school construction bonds passed in 2008 and 2012.