What's Going on With San Diego Schools' Budget - Voice of San Diego

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What's Going on With San Diego Schools' Budget

Last-minute changes to San Diego Unified’s budget for next year led many to fear teacher layoffs rather than the reshuffling that’s actually set to happen.

You’d be forgiven for thinking San Diego Unified is about to lay off lots of teachers.

Union leaders, principals and parents panicked last week when they learned of Superintendent Cindy Marten’s proposal to eliminate one teacher per school and dozens of other positions. They packed a board meeting last week, some holding signs that accused Marten of putting the district through “Hunger Games.”

But the district isn’t set to hand out pink slips. Instead, San Diego Unified is poised for a reshuffling effort cobbled together in the wake of the release of Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget, which proposed sticking school districts across the state with steeper pension bills to close a shortfall.

San Diego Unified was already saddled with more than a $100 million budget shortfall before this news despite voters’ approval of a statewide  tax increase in 2012, which delivered  $117.1  million in new funding this year. In San Diego, most of the new tax dollars will be eaten up by increased costs and agreements with teachers who previously went years without across-the-board pay increases.

One of the district’s strategies to deal with its already existing deficit – and declining enrollment – was to hand about 470 teachers a retirement deal to both lessen its teaching corps and get some of its more expensive educators off the payroll.

All those retirements mean the district will need to hire hundreds of new teachers next year. The new teachers will cost less than those who took the retirement deal.

Marten recommended last week that some of those new teachers come from within the district instead of from outside.  She’s asked every school principal to try to pick a teacher that currently isn’t spending the majority of his or her time in the classroom – these could be teachers who assist English language learners or help with math instruction, for example – to go back into the classroom full time.

This is effectively a service cut without any layoffs. Fewer teachers in the district will serve in specialized roles that aid both students and other teachers.

Those cuts won’t be possible at every school.

Take Marvin Elementary in Allied Gardens. The school has 15 teachers and two are retiring at the end of the school year. All are assigned to classrooms.

So Principal E. Jay Derwae met with district officials on Thursday to explain that he doesn’t have any teachers that work outside the classroom to offer up as part of the reshuffling plan, and that he needs all those teachers at Marvin Elementary to maintain class sizes mandated by the state.

He’s confident the district will exempt his school from the reshuffling requirement.

John Lee Evans, one of the school board members who tentatively signed off on this plan last week, said that’s what should be happening in such cases.

“There’s no absolute top-down decision (that) this is what you must do,” Evans said. “There’s recognition that there are large schools and there are small schools.”

Those large schools may have a handful of out-of-classroom teachers and simply have to pick one to go back to the classroom full time.

And Evans and Derwae both said the vast majority of these teachers should remain at the same school.

The district estimated this reorganizing effort would save about $13.1 million annually over the next three years if every school reassigns one teacher. (Again, some schools are unlikely to do this so that estimate is a bit inflated.)

Seems simple enough, right?

But there was another proposal on the books last week that added to the confusion.

Shortly after trustees discussed reshuffling plans, they talked about eliminating dozens of positions. This also concerned union leaders and parents.

This was an entirely separate discussion.

Every year, principals put together their budgets and list the positions that’ll be on their payroll. Then the district axes vacant positions not included in those budget proposals.

Child development center and clerical assistant positions are among those on the chopping block this year. There weren’t any classroom teaching positions on the list.

Evans said the district isn’t projecting any cost-savings along with this plan because there aren’t people currently working those jobs.

Yet leaders of the classified employees union were alarmed last week.

Trustee Richard Barrera, who also leads the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said the confusion largely boiled down to bargaining concerns.

He said the district initially misidentified the reasons why some positions were being cut and failed to explain its rationale to the union before last week’s meeting.

“The communications issue was the problem,” Barrera said. “They had a right to sit down and go through it.”

Principals, teachers’ union leaders and parents were similarly unclear about Marten’s teacher reshuffling proposal.

Derwae acknowledged he was initially confused too. Some principals who met with Marten before last week’s school board meeting even emailed school staff incorrect information.

“I just think some people went back to their sites and said, ‘the sky is falling,’ and really didn’t have a chance to process it through,” Derwae said.

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