File photo by Sam Hodgson
Students from Paradise Hills Elementary, part of the San Diego Unified School District.
Judging from numerous public comments and a smattering of interviews held afterwards, many of the parents and teachers who left Tuesday night’s San Diego Unified school board meeting felt not relief, nor joy, at learning their schools would not be closing, but rather disgust and fatigue.
After two weeks of angry protests, and after district staff had spent months studying — at the board’s direction — which schools to close, the trustees voted Tuesday to scrap a plan that would never have existed had they not come up with it in the first place.
“This has caused two weeks of good, lost instruction at our school, because everyone has been worried and stressed out,” said E. Jay Derwae, principal of Marvin Elementary, one of the schools initially slated for closure. “It’s unnecessary, totally totally unnecessary to have put any child through that. And it does filter down to them, and that’s the saddest part.”
To whoops from the 300 or so parents, children and teachers gathered at the meeting, the board reduced its school closure plan to a far narrower program that could possibly lead to one school being closed and three more being combined with other campuses.
With the district facing shrinking revenues and enrollment, a committee had previously concluded that 14 schools should be closed or folded into other campuses. The closures, estimated to save around $5 million, was one item on a menu of distasteful options the district has to choose from to close a looming budget deficit next year of at least $60 million.
That deficit could swell to as much as $138 million, the district now estimates, if the state makes threatened midyear cuts to education spending in January. And that could lead the district to declare insolvency, its leaders have warned, essentially handing the keys to local schools over to an unelected trustee to sort out its problems.
The unanimous vote was the most dramatic moment of a marathon meeting that stretched over almost five and a half hours. But it wasn’t the only piece of news to come out of the evening.
In a short presentation, the district’s chief financial officer, Ron Little, announced early in the meeting that its credit rating had been downgraded by a second rating agency in the course of the last week. Standard and Poor’s downgrade will end up costing taxpayers money in extra interest every time the district borrows money for long-term projects, Little said. He couldn’t estimate how much.
And, in a surprise move, the board also voted unanimously Tuesday to pay a local consulting firm $30,000 to examine the possibility of putting a new multibillion-dollar construction bond on next November’s ballot.
Voters approved a $2.1 billion bond in November 2008.
The new bond, which would be funded by an increase in local property tax, would ostensibly be used to pay for billions of dollars in deferred maintenance and infrastructure projects. But there were also hints that it could help free up everyday spending money for the district, something these construction bonds typically do not.
Unlike the parcel tax that trustee Scott Barnett proposed yesterday, the bonds only require 55 percent voter approval, not a two-thirds vote. They’re also, legally, not typically used for the everyday workings of a school district — things like paying teacher’s salaries and benefits.
But Barnett told Tuesday’s crowd that money from a bond measure could replace funds the district currently has to spend out of its everyday accounts for maintenance and technology.
A bond would therefore potentially free up millions of dollars that could be used to plug some of the district’s massive deficit, Barnett said. He estimated the district might be able to save as much as $25 million annually out of its day-to-day spending, but district Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson said staff haven’t yet analyzed how much money the district could save, if any.
Lastly, in a speech that seemed pointedly aimed at Barnett’s recent high-profile pronouncements, schools Superintendent Bill Kowba urged the board to find consensus rather than pursuing their individual agendas.
And Kowba, whose comments last month that the district could be facing insolvency sparked a wave of attention, sought to soften his earlier portent of doom. He stressed that the district does have a plan to weather its minimum prescribed deficit of $60 million, and said that things only look really bleak if the state makes midyear cuts.
“I still believe that a midyear cut in the range of $30 million is a tipping point, it is a factor that could move us over the edge,” Kowba said. “But let me also be clear that if there is not a midyear cut, I think we stand a good chance, with the right mix of budget salaries, to avoid that insolvency.”
Correction: This article originally stated that trustee John Lee Evans voted against the motion to curtail school closures. Evans originally wanted the board to further discuss the issue before voting on it, but voted for the motion after it was amended to remove a school Evans thought should not be closed. The vote was therefore unanimous. We regret the error.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at email@example.com or 619.550.5670.
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