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Friday, March 7, 2008 | For schools, the California budget cuts will take a human toll: school counselors shutting their offices, nurses packing up their first-aid kits, young teachers culled from the payrolls. Facing a shortfall of nearly $80 million, San Diego Unified schools expect to lose between 600 and 1,000 positions. There’s little else to cut: Employee expenses make up 80 percent of schools’ budgets.

Talk of layoffs follows a winning year for school employees. Teachers negotiated a new, accelerated pay scale, along with a 4.25 percent increase in salaries — 1.5 percent of it retroactive. Office workers are poised for a 3 percent salary boost. School police also got a pay hike of nearly 6 percent. Staffers estimate the raises’ total cost at $20 million annually.

Now, as San Diego schools weigh layoffs, other efforts to trim employee costs are plodding. Slashing programs doesn’t require the union’s approval, even though jobs are lost; slashing pay does. The result is a school system that, in times of crisis, is more apt to cut employees than cut back on their pay. Rolling back those recently-won increases would require a lengthy back-and-forth with the unions, who defend their pay as average at best.

Officials say the length of time it would take to renegotiate employee contracts bars schools from using that option to help solve the budget crisis.

“Look at the writers — how long did it take them to get a full contract?” said Willy Surbrook, director of labor relations for the district, referring to the recent Writers Guild of America strike. “It doesn’t meet up with the timelines the state’s given us to provide a balanced budget.”

Both sides are coming to the table — but neither expects to hatch an agreement before June 30, when San Diego Unified finalizes its budget. The teachers union is roughing out its proposed changes to its contract now, to be aired publicly later this month. San Diego Unified then responds with its own ideas, which the school board reviews, and later approves. Bargaining is unlikely to start before May, long after the school district is required to notify employees whose jobs are at risk.

Hamstrung by that lag, San Diego Unified ranked any cut that needs union approval at the bottom of the school district’s priority list, behind unpopular items such as cutting librarians and pink-slipping aides who work with disabled kids. Those cuts include a $12.4 million proposal to eliminate teacher planning time and a $4.8 million proposal to enlarge classes by a single student. Staffers also downplayed the idea of cutting all salaries 1 percent — an option that could save schools $7 million — dubbing it “not recommended.”

Meanwhile, the school district struggles to control other worker costs. Overtime hours aren’t being slashed outside the district’s central offices; administrators say schools can’t be forced to halt extra hours, which are paid from each school’s individual budget. Salary adjustments that bump workers’ pay when their daily tasks change are continuing despite their cost, lest an even pricier backlog build up. And school auditors continue to dig up instances of employee waste: A substitute aide who signed up for jobs, didn’t show up, and got paid roughly $6,000 anyway; a vice principal who took home an extra $80,000 over two and a half years; a timekeeper who tallied up nearly $11,000 in overtime — for herself.

When employees get caught skimming funds, the dollar amounts at stake are often small. But the abuses betray system-wide problems keeping tabs on employee costs. Frustrated auditors say a proposal to eliminate a senior auditor, slimming their staff to seven investigators, will hamper their efforts to catch waste.

“How many times have I heard about record-keeping problems?” asked Bill Wright, who sits on the district’s Audit and Finance Committee. Wright lamented “the fact that someone can get paid, and not show up!”

Auditors also counted up more than $16 million in overtime last school year, when roughly 3 percent of San Diego Unified employees racked up 40 percent of overtime costs. Those charges come from a variety of employees: school police called to staff athletic events and part-time aides who have to stay late, for example.

Eyeing this year’s budget, the school district halted overtime in central offices, along with travel and conferences. But at schools, overtime continues, paid out of each school’s individual budget, over which the principal has discretion. San Diego Unified can’t dictate an overtime freeze to schools, said Bill Kowba, the district’s interim superintendent and chief financial officer.

Unions that represent school workers, unlike airline or automotive unions, often fight pay cuts even if layoffs are likely to result, said Mike Antonucci, a union critic who leads the one-man Education Intelligence Agency in Elk Grove. Unlike a tanking company, a public school must survive, and must be staffed, he said. As a result, employee unions are less likely to trade away their salaries for jobs, knowing the enterprise itself will survive.

“We’re not talking about the massive kind of layoffs that some private companies have gone through — layoffs where you lose 20, 30 percent of the workforce,” Antonucci said. “In those cases, unions tend to negotiate, in terms of reducing pay and keeping people on.”

Some charter schools in San Diego are taking the opposite tack, preferring to target salaries over cutting staff. Publicly funded but independently run, most charter schools aren’t unionized. Salary cuts don’t need to be negotiated with employee unions. Nor do other changes, such as increasing class sizes or eliminating preparation time, when teachers plan lessons. Instead, any changes go before the school’s board.

At San Diego Cooperative Charter School, for instance, principal Wendy Ranck-Buhr may freeze salaries to keep costs down. Ordinarily, the school pays its teachers along the same scale as San Diego Unified staffers. Ranck-Buhr usually budgets for an 8 percent increase in salaries each year as teachers move up on the salary schedules, she said. If the school decides to freeze pay, Ranck-Buhr expects to save $103,000, preventing layoffs.

“It’s not great, but at least everyone would have a job,” said Ranck-Buhr. “Now, we’re only dealing with a $200,000 cut. I think I can find $200,000 — but I sure can’t find $300,000.”

In San Diego Unified, the teachers union agrees that schools are overspending on staff, but argues that neither layoffs nor pay cuts are the answer. Nor, they insist, are they a natural tradeoff. Rather, administrative costs are too high, said union president Camille Zombro. She questioned why the school district isn’t closing severely under-enrolled schools to spare money on buildings and administrative staff, or consolidating more of its small schools — large middle and high schools that have split into multiple schools, each with its own principal.

“There’s clearly an increase in the amount being spent on administration,” Zombro said, citing a union study that found administrative costs had risen from 3.8 percent to 5.3 percent of the school district’s budget.

Closing tiny schools is a political hot button for the school board, which has shied from it. Instead, staffers suggested that tiny schools share principals, saving $1.11 million in costs.

Meanwhile, unions are arguing that schools can still be spared by lobbying state legislators to seek more revenue, and cancel the cuts. Faced with criticism of the recent salary increases, union leaders counter that employee pay is only average, compared to other San Diego County school districts. The blame, they say, should be aimed not at employees and their paychecks, but at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proposed the cuts to liquidate the state deficit, now estimated at $16 billion.

“There’s nothing negotiated this year, last year or next year that’s bankrupting this district,” Zombro said. “They don’t pay enough for their educators.”

But with analysts predicting shortfalls for years to come, and little hope from legislators in Sacramento, even sympathetic observers are questioning whether schools should slim employees’ pay to help reduce layoffs, and keep class sizes from ballooning.

“My point of view is that teachers are underpaid,” said Les Birdsall, past president of the Network for School Improvement, now defunct. “But you have to cut back money. And there’s no painless way to do it.”

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

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