Wednesday, April 16, 2008 | Hundreds of San Diego teachers’ jobs in peril. State coffers bleeding billions of dollars. A bitter battle between Republicans and Democrats, between San Diego Unified and its unionized teachers. For schools, this year’s budget saga is a strong dose of déjà vu.

San Diego Unified has sent layoff warnings to 913 teachers in an effort to trim $80 million from its budget. In 2003, the numbers were even gloomier. Layoff warnings were handed to 1,166 teachers as San Diego Unified forecasted a $147.7 million cut, $70 million of which was attributable to the state crisis.

Yet the 2003 crisis was diminished. Ultimately, California scaled back the cuts, and so did San Diego Unified. California cobbled together a raft of stopgap measures, including bonds and shifting revenues, to leave funding for schools essentially even. The school district cut $73 million from its budget, sacrificing custodians, landscapers and administrators, but sparing teachers.

Teachers hope history will repeat itself. But observers in San Diego and statewide say this crisis is different. They worry that the one-time fixes that rescued both California and San Diego Unified from the dire straits predicted in 2003 may be more difficult, if not impossible, to repeat.

“We’ve gone after low-hanging fruit already. We’ve picked the tree,” said Brett McFadden, management services executive for the Association of California School Administrators. “This budget crisis is fundamentally different than what we’ve faced before — and those differences are far more challenging.”

California faced a $38 billion budget gap in 2003 after the dot-com boom went bust. More than $2 billion in school cuts were planned statewide.

While raising the specter of teacher layoffs, San Diego Unified trimmed 429 other jobs, including 117 custodians, nearly 90 gardeners, and 120 part-time campus caretakers. Gone were the Parent Involvement Department and “Minitown” human relations camps for kids. Athletics spending was cut 10 percent, and magnet programs were canceled at several schools.

San Diego also offered its veteran employees a “golden handshake:” a one-time retirement bonus that encouraged its senior workers to retire. Leaving spots unfilled and allowing veterans to be replaced with less expensive, shorter-serving employees helped San Diego Unified stave off layoffs. Roughly 1,400 workers jumped at the bonus. Instead of firing teachers, the school district found itself hiring more than 700 new employees.

One was Susan O’Brien, a fifth grade teacher who left private schools to teach at Vista Grande Elementary in Tierrasanta. Her son had just been diagnosed with cancer, and she believed the public schools offered greater job security. O’Brien is now on the chopping block.

“I’m a tenured teacher,” O’Brien said. “I didn’t think this could happen.”

It could. Then again, it might not. The layoff notices that O’Brien and 912 other teachers received don’t guarantee a firing. Under the law, California schools can’t lay off a teacher without an advance warning issued by March 15. Teachers call them pink slips. If the state budget brightens, San Diego Unified may not dismiss any teachers. If it remains the same, all teachers who received a pink slip could be laid off.

Back in 2003, state leaders were also rolling back their planned cuts to public schools. To lessen the deficit, Gov. Gray Davis increased the vehicle license fee, pouring $4.2 billion back into the budget. Legislators also passed a $10.7 billion deficit bond and a $1.9 billion pension obligation bond. Community colleges and universities boosted their fees, and local governments and state workers suffered cuts of $1 billion and $1.2 billion respectively. When the budget was finally signed in August 2003, K-12 school funding was left intact.

The proposed cuts are smaller this year, but school experts believe the crisis could be worse.

On the state level, debt is mounting on borrowed money, wrote Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, in a recent article in the California Educator, a monthly publication of the California Teachers Association. Ross has estimated that borrowing will cost $2.5 billion in principal and interest in the 2008-09 budget, and more than $4 billion the following year. Reinstating the vehicle license fee is politically poisonous.

And budget wizardry won’t work, said Mike Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

“We’ve used all kinds of one-shot gimmicks and assumptions, switching funds around — we already did that,” Kirst said. “There’s none of that left.”

Meanwhile, California has pledged funding for specific programs, such as state parks, without finding new revenue to bankroll them. That limits what programs can and can’t be cut, decreasing the state’s budget flexibility in tough times. After-school funding is untouchable, thanks to a 2002 proposition that mandates about $550 million be spent on those programs annually.

In past years, budget projections softened over time. But this February, the Legislative Analyst’s Office revised its projected deficit from $14.5 billion to $16 billion because of uncontrolled expenses and a lack of revenues.

Within the school districts, administrators say year after year of fat-trimming have forced them to cut bone this year. Individual schools reduced their budgets between 2 percent to 7 percent in 2003, and have yet to recover, said Bruce McGirr, president-elect of the local Administrators Association. Many of the custodians and landscapers who lost jobs in 2003 were restored, but other non-teachers weren’t, said Gamy Rayburn, budget director for San Diego Unified.

“We will not be able to pull off those strategies again,” McGirr said. “We reduced the number of positions, and a lot of those never came back.”

The teachers union is unconvinced, arguing that San Diego Unified could “cut smarter.” Union president Camille Zombro has urged the district to offer another retirement bonus, an option that has not gained traction. San Diego Unified is still repaying the golden handshake of 2003, which was funded in periodic installments. One last payment is due this year. Former finance director Rick Knott, now a consultant to San Diego Unified, recently advised the school board that the bonus’ price could outweigh its benefits. And Rayburn was doubtful that a bonus was feasible this late in the year.

“We didn’t even have the time to look into that,” she said.

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

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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