Photo by Sam Hodgson
The San Diego Unified school board
Year after year, San Diego Unified has grudgingly prepared for the worst based on budget plans made by the California governor. It once warned hundreds of teachers that they would lose their jobs. That threat fizzled, but not before it sent the school district into an uproar.
School board members want that painful pattern to stop, and they have a risky idea in mind.
Even though Gov. Jerry Brown pledged to spare schools, districts all over the state are bracing for layoffs. They’ve decided not to bank on what the governor says, since his plans depend on voters extending tax increases.
If San Diego Unified does the same it could wind up warning more than 1,400 workers that they could lose their jobs. But the school board is exploring whether it could buck that trend and simply trust Brown’s plan, looking to avert the layoff agony and planning for massive cuts that don’t end up happening.
If voters do pass the taxes in June, the move would look brilliant.
“It’s very creative. They deserve credit for that,” said Dan McAllister, the county treasurer-tax collector and leader of the school district audit and finance committee. “But if this thing goes down to defeat, you’d see a summertime scramble that would be unparalleled in local education circles in the state.”
Betting on a tax extension could also leave the school district stranded if the taxes fail. In most cases, if school districts do not warn teachers by March 15, they can’t cut them.
School board members point to an obscure quirk in the law that could allow them to terminate teachers long after the legal deadline has passed. The escape hatch can’t be used if the legislature passes the budget too late or if funding reaches a specific level. The California School Boards Association advises school districts not to count on that quirk in the law, since it hasn’t been thoroughly tested in court.
“We are very concerned that districts are going to do this in the summer. Teachers think they have a job and then they don’t,” said Fern Steiner, an attorney who represents employees in school labor issues.
School district staffers have been cautious about counting on Brown’s proposal. San Diego Unified is building two budgets at the same time, one using the rosier numbers, one assuming that the taxes fail. Chief Financial Officer Ron Little said it is more prudent to plan on the taxes failing. If they fail, he estimates it would have to cut $129 million. If they pass, those cuts drop to $63 million.
“Hope is not a viable fiscal strategy,” Little recently told a committee of parents and teachers.
While a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that slightly more than half of adults would back the proposed taxes, several groups that advise school districts on financial issues have recommended that schools not count on them passing.
And not everyone on the San Diego Unified school board is gung ho about the idea. Board member Shelia Jackson said she would not support budgeting on the idea that the planned taxes would pass. Scott Barnett said he wasn’t ready to weigh in on it before he got more reliable information about the budget cuts.
The ultimate arbiter will be the County Office of Education, which scrutinizes and approves the budgets that districts put together. Across the state, county offices of education may give different advice. The local office said it didn’t want to comment on any plans until it had a proposed budget from the school district.
“They’ve always told us to build the budget around what the governor proposes,” said San Diego Unified school board President Richard Barrera, who supports exploring the idea. “Now nobody has been clear. If we don’t build a budget on that, what should we build a budget around?”
The school board must decide soon. The school board is supposed to submit a budget to the County Office of Education by March 15, which is also the deadline to warn teachers of layoffs.
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