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Monday, March 17, 2008 | Irate parents packed a San Diego Unified school board meeting Tuesday, vexed by the potential layoffs of 903 educators. One question echoed on parents’ and teachers’ lips: Why can’t San Diego schools be more like Long Beach?

In many ways, they are. Like San Diego Unified, Long Beach Unified suffers from declining enrollment, which drains school budgets. Like San Diego, it faces massive budget cuts, the consequence of a $16 billion state deficit. San Diego Unified is California’s second-largest district; Long Beach Unified, its third-largest.

Yet while San Diego warns teachers of hundreds of potential layoffs, Long Beach Unified won’t lay off any permanent teachers. Long Beach plans to steer clear of firing teachers by halting hiring, paying substitutes less, leaving vacancies vacant, shortening the work year, and shifting costs away from the day-to-day budget, charging other funding sources instead.

Those cuts aren’t painless, Long Beach officials caution. Nor were all school employees spared. Assistant principals and classified employees such as custodians are on the chopping block. But Long Beach, unlike San Diego, has so far avoided handing teachers the dreaded pink slip. While Long Beach’s cuts will impact the education system there in other ways, the lack of fired teachers has left the district free of the rancor found seen here recently in San Diego.

To lay off any teacher, California schools must first warn them by March 15, which is why next year’s layoffs are being planned right now. If it doesn’t send a warning, a school district can’t cut that job when the final budget numbers roll in. The warnings, dubbed “pink slips” by teachers, don’t guarantee a layoff. But they stir up uncertainty, rile the teachers union, and upset parents, alarmed that a prized teacher might be cut.

Send the warnings, and the schools have the option of dismissing teachers, if need be — but morale dives and uneasy teachers split for other jobs. Opt against them, and the school district wins accolades from teachers — but gambles against the dismal predictions issuing from Sacramento, barring itself from firing teachers if budgets really do plummet.

If school budgets were firm, districts could staunchly defend their choice to pink slip, or not pink slip, pointing to hard-and-fast numbers. But faced with a June 30 deadline, California schools base their budgets on the earliest proposals from the state. This year, that spells out a $4.8 billion shortfall for schools statewide. Those plans are likely to morph as legislators dicker over taxes and fees, hashing out the final state budget in July or later. By then, schools have already planned — and cut — for a doomsday scenario.

The question of how seriously to take the state forecast — and whether sending layoff notices is prudent or panicky — is hotly contested. And different districts have come to very different conclusions.

School districts such as San Diego, Vista, Poway and Grossmont opted to insure themselves against a worst-case scenario, issuing warnings to make sure that they can cut teachers, if need be. Across California, nearly 14,000 pink slips have landed in teachers’ mailboxes, according to the California Teachers Association.

Other districts eschewed pink slips. In San Diego County, Sweetwater schools won’t fire permanent teachers; statewide, teachers in Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland won’t be laid off. That choice limits schools’ financial freedom, but avoids political rancor and school turmoil.

“It all depends — how much risk are you willing to take?” said Joel Montero, chief executive officer of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a Bakersfield-based group that gives schools financial advice. “If you don’t pull the trigger … by March 15, then you’re going to keep those folks for another one-year cycle. If you guess wrong in the number of teachers you’ll have” after retirements, “there’s not enough money left anywhere else to fix that problem.”

Tuesday, the contrast between San Diego and Long Beach prompted angry questions from San Diego parents and teachers, who asked what Long Beach and Los Angeles are doing that San Diego Unified isn’t. School board president Katherine Nakamura defended the layoff warnings as a way to keep flexibility, allowing San Diego Unified to dismiss teachers if budget cuts are as bad as predicted. Another trustee, Shelia Jackson, countered that the flexibility gained by issuing the warnings wasn’t worth its human price.

“It’s time not to be flexible,” Jackson countered, voting against the layoff warnings, “but to have laser-like focus” in choosing what to cut.

Proposals to slash schools have historically been a political bargaining chip, reversed at the 11th hour, after schools have already planned — and pink slipped — for the worst. That breeds skepticism in schools.

In San Diego Unified, teachers union president Camille Zombro doubts the district’s predicted $80 million shortfall that spurred the school board to issue 903 pink slips last week. In 2003, 1,400 notices were issued to teachers, she said. Ultimately, none were laid off.

“We were in the same boat five years ago, and we got right back out of it,” Zombro said.

Yet skipping pink slips doesn’t mean sparing all staff. School districts typically spend 85 to 90 percent of their budget on employees, making it difficult to trim elsewhere. But other forms of cost-cutting — leaving vacancies empty, for instance, or cutting administrators or temporary teachers, who can be dismissed without layoff notices — are less politically explosive than giving layoff notices to permanent teachers, and tend to rouse less interest.

Long Beach Unified, for instance, isn’t laying off teachers. But the district is still reducing staff, cutting 10 assistant principal jobs. The human impact of other Long Beach cuts are less clear. For instance, the district chalks up $16 million in savings to a seemingly baffling action: “Suspend Quota Bulletin and redirect expenses to Categorical Funding,” according to its budget. That means throwing out staffing ratios for schools, and asking schools to find money for counselors or librarians elsewhere — in federal funds for low-income students, for instance, instead of the general fund.

Avoiding layoffs in Long Beach is even more striking because teachers recently won a 4.53 percent salary increase, retroactive to last July, and earn an average salary more than $5,000 higher than San Diego Unified teachers.

Long Beach has also planned for a $1.6 million savings by eliminating extra school staff. To dodge layoffs, schools will make that cut by leaving vacancies empty, anticipating that the retirement wave of baby-boomer teachers will help close the gap. The district will also slash substitute teacher pay by 10 percent, cut summer school, and pare back the work year to roughly 11 months for employees at year-round schools, among other reductions.

By leaving spots empty, “we actually are cutting staffing. But you won’t see us issuing the March layoff notices that other districts are,” said spokesman Chris Eftychiou, later adding, “With some creative fund-shifting, we’re doing the best we can to protect our teachers.”

In Chula Vista, Sweetwater Union High School District froze spending, hiring and salaries to forestall firing permanent teachers. Yet temporary teachers, who work on year-to-year contracts, will likely be slashed as the district aims to raise its average class size from 28 to 30. Under the law, they don’t have to be pink-slipped. When the district announced its potential cuts, not a single person rose to protest, spokeswoman Lillian Leopold said.

Compare that with the bitter hours of public protest when San Diego Unified voted on its teacher layoffs, which have a powerful pull on parents’ heartstrings. Parents from the newly-opened Lincoln High School in southeast San Diego fretted that their school, staffed largely by newer and younger teachers, would suffer a severe overhaul from the layoffs. Less-experienced teachers are typically cut first.

“They’re family here. What if they came in and took your daughter, and replaced her?” asked Tasha Williamson, a parent volunteer at Lincoln High School. “That’s what you’re saying to us, when you take our teachers.”

In contrast, cutting the “quota bulletin” or trimming administrators is unlikely to pack parents into a school board meeting, said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a research center based at the University of California Berkeley. Those cuts also have impacts, but lack the emotional punch of pink slips.

“We have this idea in California that if you just protect the classroom, teaching and learning goes out, and we can make costless cuts elsewhere in the system. That’s not really true,” Plank said. Teachers get help from the school district — from staffers who develop curriculum, for example, or who help coordinate standardized testing. “What we’ve done over and over again is cut everything else, while trying to protect teachers. That’s simply because it’s what people see as the beating heart of the education system.”

For several San Diego County school districts, issuing the lay-off warnings is seen as a way to insure the district against the worst-case scenario, in the absence of a completed plan. Unlike Long Beach, which planned around layoffs, other districts are still figuring out how to handle the cuts. For them, layoff warnings are a safety hatch, ensuring that if other ideas falter, schools could resort to laying off teachers.

Vista Unified is still prioritizing possible cuts, and chose to issue 133 notices to teachers as a safeguard, said chief business officer Donna Caperton. The cut was calculated by raising elementary class sizes, saving Vista $882,000, she said. Likewise, Poway has yet to finalize a whole list of potential cuts, and is waiting for a clearer budget scenario from the state, said associate superintendent Bill Chiment. The North County district issued 106 pink slips to teachers this week.

“It was premature,” Chiment said, “but that’s the law. It’s a very, very precautionary approach, without going overboard.”

Rick Pratt, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association, said given the scope of the intended cuts, most school districts will be forced to issue pink slips. The potential exceptions are rare: school districts with rapidly growing enrollment, bulky reserve funds, or a burst of teacher retirements. Other districts, such as Oakland, passed parcel taxes to support schools in February, and will dodge layoffs of permanent teachers. Oakland’s tax will pour $20 million annually into schools, cutting a potential $43 million shortfall down to $23 million.

In addition, “some districts will refuse to issue layoff notices as a political statement … and hope for the best,” Pratt said. “But we think the prudent thing to do is be prepared for the worst.”

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

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