Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008 | Principal Thomas Liberto is already pinching pennies wherever he can. At Jerabek Elementary, a top-scoring school in affluent Scripps Ranch, Liberto asks teachers to skimp on specially-lined paper and to skip off-site workshops.

“If books wear out, I can’t replace them. Certain colors of construction paper are too expensive — I can’t buy it,” Liberto said. “It gets down to the details. … And if we lose our nurse, it’s just chaos in the office.”

Less Money, More Problems

  • The Issue: California schools face massive budget cuts under the governor’s proposed plan, with $80 million to be cut in San Diego Unified alone.
  • What It Means: San Diego Unified and other school districts say layoffs are inevitable, because the bulk of school budgets are salaries.
  • The Bigger Picture: Cutting employees will likely translate into bigger classes and fewer programs.

Kids line up to see the school nurse, who comes only twice a week. If cuts are dire, Liberto said, that nurse could lose her job, forcing a secretary to juggle kids with diabetes, beestings or head lice.

Embroiled in budget meetings, San Diego Unified staffers have yet to tell him exactly how much funding to cut. But Liberto is already mulling what services to snip — including the school nurse. Under state law, public schools are required to notify certificated employees by March 15 if their jobs might be cut, or lose the right to lay them off. As the district tarries, principals face a time crunch to make those tough calls.

Sweeping budget cuts aimed at California schools are expected to spur layoffs, crowding classrooms and gutting special programs. With few specifics and rapid deadlines, budgeting is a stressful guessing game for schools. As legislators dicker over the dollars, schools are bracing for the worst-case scenario as they figure out which employees and programs stay, and which go.

As they wrestle with the crisis, a product of California’s abdication of property taxes to fund schools, districts across the county are scrambling to keep programs intact. New teachers fear losing jobs in San Diego Unified; in Borrego Springs, senior teachers are being prodded to retire. Meanwhile, charter schools that rely heavily on state funding are under threat, but also have more options to combat the cuts.

Statewide, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed trimming education nearly 10 percent, paring $400 million from K-14 schools before July, and an additional $4 billion next school year. In San Diego County alone, cuts are estimated at $360 million. Its largest district, San Diego Unified, expects to receive nearly $80 million less next school year.

California faces a $14.5 billion deficit as taxes fail to cover the state’s spending. To plug it, Schwarzenegger wants to suspend Proposition 98, which sets minimums for school funding, and slash all state programs by 10 percent. Superintendents say the proposed cuts far outstrip the state’s last budget crisis in 2003, savaging schools that already lag far behind the national average in student spending.

“Where else can we cut?” asked Peggy Lynch, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District and co-chairwoman of the Association of California School Administrators’ regional chapter. “This is a huge step backwards.”

California’s per-pupil spending plummeted after 1978, when voters passed Proposition 13. The law, which passed easily, made schools largely dependent on volatile income taxes instead of property taxes, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. As a result, California school budgets volley up and down dramatically. But legislators are unlikely to revisit the rule.

“No governor wants to raise taxes. It’s a third rail,” Kirst said. “It’s like trying to change Social Security.”

Statewide, the California Federation of Teachers is pushing for the governor to reinstate an annual fee charged to car owners, repealed by Schwarzenegger early after his election. The fee would restore roughly $4 billion in funds annually.

Most Districts Opt to Cut Lowest-Ranking Teachers

Many cuts won’t be up to the principals, who make budget decisions for their school sites, but will descend from the school board.

Because salaries make up nearly 80 percent of San Diego Unified’s budget, layoffs are inevitable, said Gamy Rayburn, director of budget operations. If trustees opt to cut programs or eliminate positions, they trigger a “pinball effect” of employee reassignments, Chief Human Resources Officer Sam Wong said. If a vice principal’s job is cut, that vice principal can displace another teacher with less seniority, who in turn can displace another teacher. Losing teachers, in turn, will mean bigger classes.

Under seniority rules, teachers with the least experience in the district are most likely to lose their jobs, draining young talent from schools. First-year music teacher Melissa Simmons splits her time between three schools in Point Loma. Just months after earning her credential and starting work, she fears she’ll be the first to go. Kindergarten teacher Lindsay Burningham shares her worries.

“I hear so many conflicting things. When the pink slips might come. I can’t plan ahead. … It’s difficult to even think about,” said Burningham, who teaches at Scripps Elementary. This year, she finally got tenure — and a condominium. “I can’t see myself doing anything other than teaching.”

Educators worry that cutting fresh-faced teachers will depress the teaching field and spook future recruits.

“They get swept away,” said Patricia Ladd, executive director of Keiller Leadership Academy, a charter middle school. “And in California, there’s no place to run. Everyone is cutting jobs.”

An alternative approach, offering perks to encourage senior employees to retire early, is shunned by many school districts — even San Diego Unified, which proffered bonuses for retirees in 2003 to ease budget strains. Incentives’ price can outweigh their benefits, said San Diego Unified consultant and former finance director Rick Knott, who advised trustees that a retirement incentive wouldn’t solve “multi-year budget problems.”

School districts such as Chula Vista, National and San Dieguito Union High aren’t likely to use early retirements either. An exception is Borrego Springs, a tiny district in East County that hopes to prod two or three teachers to retire, then leave their positions vacant for several years.

To spare classroom teachers and other employees, San Diego Unified trustees are scrutinizing other expenses. Hiring, overtime and travel have been frozen at the district’s central offices, which were asked to absorb 10 to 15 percent cuts. Digging deeper into the district’s reserve funds could provide some relief, but would hurt San Diego Unified’s credit rating just before the district seeks a new bond to pay for classroom technology and building repairs, school board president Katherine Nakamura said.

Closing or consolidating schools with less than 400 students could save San Diego Unified millions of dollars annually in operating costs, Chief Finance Officer Bill Kowba said, but closures are deeply unpopular with parents. Another less politically risky option might be to share a single principal over multiple small schools. Both options have been advocated by the teachers union.

Unique programs may also come under the knife, as San Diego Unified reevaluates their purpose, Kowba said. At Jerabek, one such program teaches Spanish to English-speaking kids at the school. No one has specifically tapped the Spanish program for cuts, Liberto said. But amid massive cuts, it may be difficult to justify programs that serve individual schools, he fears.

And district staffers believe some cuts are impossible. Special education programs, which already outspend their allotted budget, are slated for a $9.8 million cut at San Diego Unified. Schools are legally bound to serve special education students as outlined in individual plans, and special education enrollment is rising, even as district-wide enrollment stagnates or drops.

Charter Schools Combat Cuts Differently

Charter schools face different challenges in the budget crunch. Such schools are publicly funded but independently run, and receive money directly from the state. State budget cuts may weigh on them more heavily, because charter schools don’t usually receive money from parcel taxes or local bond measures, which support other public schools, said Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association.

However, charter schools also enjoy advantages over public schools in coping with cuts. One such school, High Tech High, has pledged to avoid teacher layoffs entirely. Chief Operating Officer Jed Wallace said the school might scrimp on maintenance, and could cut salaries instead of cutting workers. Like most charters, High Tech High isn’t unionized, and can reduce pay without a lengthy fight with its employee unions. And unlike Liberto, left waiting for a budget, Wallace doesn’t need to wait for the school district to move.

Ladd, who directs Keiller, said her teachers may be asked to take additional duties, such as running the library or updating the school’s website. In a district-run school, that could provoke a grievance from the teachers union, Ladd said. Bulking up a teacher’s work could also trigger a job reclassification, upping the employee’s pay and eliminating the savings.

“School districts are, in general, less nimble” than charter schools, Wallace said. “We’re our own school district.”

But while High Tech High and Keiller expect to survive, smaller charter schools could fall prey to the crisis, San Diego Unified Superintendent Terry Grier said.

Those possibilities weigh heavily on teachers, parents and principals across the district, waiting to see how and where the cuts fall, and how schools of all stripes weather the storm.

“We don’t know anything yet. We can’t do anything,” said Simmons, the music teacher. “We’re nervous, but if it happens — it happens.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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