School Closures Curtailed, New Borrowing Idea Floated

School Closures Curtailed, New Borrowing Idea Floated

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.

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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 will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless

Will Carless is the former head of investigations at Voice of San Diego. He currently lives in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is a freelance foreign correspondent and occasional contributor to VOSD. You can reach him at will.carless.work@gmail.com.

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56 comments
Allen Hemphill
Allen Hemphill subscribermember

Dennis - yes, the NAEP is a snapshot, but it is the only national tool we have that is standardized and conducted by the US Department of Education -- and unbiased entity. If you know of another national, unbiased test that shows anything different, let's hear it.

Akamai
Akamai

Dennis - yes, the NAEP is a snapshot, but it is the only national tool we have that is standardized and conducted by the US Department of Education -- and unbiased entity. If you know of another national, unbiased test that shows anything different, let's hear it.

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

and restore sanity and genuine local control to our public schools. I'm working on it, Simplat, and I hope you are too.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson subscriber

Here are a few suggestions for the state and district to save some money. Stop testing second graders with the CST. (California State Test) Next, get rid of the third district benchmark test. It is absolutely overkill to give the students the third benchmark a few weeks before or after the CST. The data from the CST is used for the next year, not the third benchmark. In the second grade, we are teaching our little ones how to read. Let us spend the time on reading development not test preparation.

mojave10
mojave10

Here are a few suggestions for the state and district to save some money. Stop testing second graders with the CST. (California State Test) Next, get rid of the third district benchmark test. It is absolutely overkill to give the students the third benchmark a few weeks before or after the CST. The data from the CST is used for the next year, not the third benchmark. In the second grade, we are teaching our little ones how to read. Let us spend the time on reading development not test preparation.

Eduardo Stephano
Eduardo Stephano subscriber

Our state has cut more than $20 billion from schools and colleges, laid off more than 40,000 educators, and more than doubled college tuitions.

zeekzeus
zeekzeus

Our state has cut more than $20 billion from schools and colleges, laid off more than 40,000 educators, and more than doubled college tuitions.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa subscriber

If that's really want you want, I guarantee our test scores will shoot up and we'll be number one in the world again. It's easy when you stack the deck and hedge your bets.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa

If that's really want you want, I guarantee our test scores will shoot up and we'll be number one in the world again. It's easy when you stack the deck and hedge your bets.

Dennis Schamp
Dennis Schamp subscriber

I don't know about anyone else on the VOSD site, but I'm fed up with your comments about how I do my job. I don't see you in the classroom doing what I do every day...and I do a DAMN find job of educating our district's students, thankyouverymuch. If you can do a better job, then do so. Otherwise, I'd like a little respect, please. Thanks, in advance.

Dennis Schamp
Dennis Schamp

I don't know about anyone else on the VOSD site, but I'm fed up with your comments about how I do my job. I don't see you in the classroom doing what I do every day...and I do a DAMN find job of educating our district's students, thankyouverymuch. If you can do a better job, then do so. Otherwise, I'd like a little respect, please. Thanks, in advance.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa subscriber

The state would have money if they shut down the redevelopment agencies and all projects. That's another boondoggle sucking money from public education. Not only up front (thanks to Nathan Fletcher diverting millions from schools to subsidize private developers) but also in future property taxes. Those projects are tax exempt for I don't know how long, but we're seeing the results now.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa

The state would have money if they shut down the redevelopment agencies and all projects. That's another boondoggle sucking money from public education. Not only up front (thanks to Nathan Fletcher diverting millions from schools to subsidize private developers) but also in future property taxes. Those projects are tax exempt for I don't know how long, but we're seeing the results now.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa subscriber

But you are right in that the bond will not pass. That $30,000 is wasted money.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa

But you are right in that the bond will not pass. That $30,000 is wasted money.

Paul M Bowers
Paul M Bowers subscriber

I appreciate someone is trying to do something, but it far, far from being "worked out".

Paul M Bowers
Paul M Bowers

I appreciate someone is trying to do something, but it far, far from being "worked out".

Jeff Girolami
Jeff Girolami subscriber

is anyone suprised that it worked out... how many times do these scare tactics fail.

enough
enough

is anyone suprised that it worked out... how many times do these scare tactics fail.

Jennifer Robinson
Jennifer Robinson subscriber

Wow, you don't have to waste $30000 to know the result from this study. It's another example of how to spend the others' money that you don't have to work hard for it. Waste more money to hopefully get more free money. No wonder the school board is near or already broke. I don't know whether we should laugh at this silly study or we should cry for not knowing how the existing school board will get us all out of this mess. Remember there is a word CON in the term consulting.

jennjt20
jennjt20

Wow, you don't have to waste $30000 to know the result from this study. It's another example of how to spend the others' money that you don't have to work hard for it. Waste more money to hopefully get more free money. No wonder the school board is near or already broke. I don't know whether we should laugh at this silly study or we should cry for not knowing how the existing school board will get us all out of this mess. Remember there is a word CON in the term consulting.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

But again, the real issue is how poorly we educate the kids here, not how much we waste money.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

But again, the real issue is how poorly we educate the kids here, not how much we waste money.

Mike Richards
Mike Richards subscriber

On topic number 2. Why is the school board even looking at and spending by their own admission non existant funds to "explore" the possibility of another school bond. Both of the last 2 bonds which the public approved have been proven to have wasted thousands if not millions of dollars on projects. And they still haven't provided upgrading for the projects so listed. The Board should reverse this vote and spend money on the children, which they say they don't have.

LGMike
LGMike

On topic number 2. Why is the school board even looking at and spending by their own admission non existant funds to "explore" the possibility of another school bond. Both of the last 2 bonds which the public approved have been proven to have wasted thousands if not millions of dollars on projects. And they still haven't provided upgrading for the projects so listed. The Board should reverse this vote and spend money on the children, which they say they don't have.

Paul M Bowers
Paul M Bowers subscriber

Bring on the insolvency. The sooner we do the surgery, the sooner the patient can recover.

Paul M Bowers
Paul M Bowers

Bring on the insolvency. The sooner we do the surgery, the sooner the patient can recover.

Bob Gardner
Bob Gardner subscriber

So Mr. and Mrs. Politician, stop spending so much money.

rgardne70
rgardne70

So Mr. and Mrs. Politician, stop spending so much money.

Andrew Donohue
Andrew Donohue subscriber

Frances, the consultant is Larry Remer.

adonohue
adonohue

Frances, the consultant is Larry Remer.

Jill Heller
Jill Heller subscriber

SHAME on the BOE for just prolonging this crisis even further.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa subscriber

There is about $60-72 million above and beyond the required reserve. Rainy day money. So if it rains in the middle of the year, there is money to tide the district through without touching the legally required reserve. Boy, that above and beyond reserve seems to get bigger and bigger. I wonder where that money is coming from if the district is insolvent?

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa

There is about $60-72 million above and beyond the required reserve. Rainy day money. So if it rains in the middle of the year, there is money to tide the district through without touching the legally required reserve. Boy, that above and beyond reserve seems to get bigger and bigger. I wonder where that money is coming from if the district is insolvent?

Steven Baratte
Steven Baratte subscriber

I would like to hear how the San Diego Taxpayer's Association, where Mr. Barnett was formerly president, would respond to his new idea. We need a board that will do what's right, not what's to get reelected. The district is wasting money by keeping schools open. Asking the taxpayers for a parcel tax to keep open unnecessary schools is almost as ludicrous as asking for a school construction bond for schools when voters already approved one in 2008. That money should be spent on fixing neighborhood schools where neighborhood children actually attend. Then, rent out or sell of the other properties as is and let someone else worry about them.

sdpseudonym
sdpseudonym

I would like to hear how the San Diego Taxpayer's Association, where Mr. Barnett was formerly president, would respond to his new idea. We need a board that will do what's right, not what's to get reelected. The district is wasting money by keeping schools open. Asking the taxpayers for a parcel tax to keep open unnecessary schools is almost as ludicrous as asking for a school construction bond for schools when voters already approved one in 2008. That money should be spent on fixing neighborhood schools where neighborhood children actually attend. Then, rent out or sell of the other properties as is and let someone else worry about them.

Allen Hemphill
Allen Hemphill subscribermember

Bond Issue? (Too many Medical Marijuana Cards being passed out, these days.)

Akamai
Akamai

Bond Issue? (Too many Medical Marijuana Cards being passed out, these days.)

Paul M Bowers
Paul M Bowers subscriber

(presses face into hands, shaking head slowly from side-to-side)

Paul M Bowers
Paul M Bowers

(presses face into hands, shaking head slowly from side-to-side)

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

And the real issue remains the very poor job SDUSD does educating kids.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

And the real issue remains the very poor job SDUSD does educating kids.

Emilio Torres
Emilio Torres subscriber

It's hard to have an informed opinion when the numbers shift up and down by the tens of millions on a daily basis.

Emilio
Emilio

It's hard to have an informed opinion when the numbers shift up and down by the tens of millions on a daily basis.

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

Anyway, as we are being whipsawed from crisis to manufactured crisis by this disgraceful Board of Education and its puppet Superintendent, could the public get a promise that any future school bond that's floated and passed by a trusting public will not be diverted to projects such as the Central Library boondoggle? After what happened to $20+ million of Prop S, it's a fair request.