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Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008 | With budget woes likely to devil California schools for the second year running, neither candidate in the most heated race for the San Diego Unified school board has explained how they would balance its budget if the state once again slaps schools with cuts.

It is a glaring unknown in a polarized race that has become a referendum on how San Diego Unified dealt with earlier budget cuts, pitting board member Mitz Lee, who opted to dismiss teachers, against a challenger who says teacher layoffs would be his last resort. Democrat John Lee Evans has seized on the layoffs as a misjudgment that he would not repeat, winning support and cash from the teachers union. Republican Mitz Lee has billed her decision as prudent in an uneasy economy.

But Evans has shied from specifying what he would cut if the state slashed budgets again — a scenario that experts say is highly likely. Lee refuses to speculate on what could or should be cut, calling it irresponsible to worry employees. That leaves voters with few specifics on how the candidates would handle the next probable crisis for San Diego Unified, save their general sentiments about teacher layoffs and fiscal responsibility.

“Politicians are loath to face those choices before they have to,” said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center based in Northern California. “Each will campaign on the idea that they have the solution to cause the least pain. But when the pain arrives, that’s when they will deal with it.”

San Diego Unified braced for a potential $80 million shortfall last March under an initial proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when Lee and three other school board members voted to warn more than 900 teachers of possible layoffs. It later canceled or reversed hundreds of those warnings, leaving roughly 200 teachers with pink slips in July when the district budgeted for a roughly $53 million loss. Many regained their jobs in the fall when budgets proved better than expected.

Others were less fortunate. San Diego Unified also cut nearly 200 administrators from its central office and laid off hundreds of other employees, such as warehouse workers and aides for students with disabilities.

The budget that Schwarzenegger finally signed gives back roughly $13.3 million to San Diego Unified, said Chief Financial Officer James Masias, though many of those dollars come with strings attached, limiting how San Diego Unified can spend them. An uptick in student enrollment will mean slightly more state funding, Masias said, but its coffers are still depleted.

Superintendent Terry Grier now says San Diego Unified overreacted to the dismal numbers coming from the state. Evans has made that a rallying cry. The layoff drama cost the school district time, money and morale and further soured the relationship between Grier and the teachers union.

“It was a drastic step to eliminate teachers without looking for alternatives,” he said at a candidates forum sponsored by the Association of Raza Educators last month.

Evans promises to cut administration with “no teacher layoffs.” While he has not named specific ways to cut from the top, he believes a first step could be hiring an outside consultant to evaluate what programs and departments at San Diego Unified could be trimmed. Program directors lack objectivity when deciding which parts of their programs should go under the knife, Evans said. He would also consult highly active parents who were handpicked to give their input, much as the school board consults parents and stakeholders before choosing a superintendent.

“I don’t know specifically where cuts could be done but it needs to be addressed more objectively,” Evans said. “I wouldn’t expect a teachers union to have a lot of great ideas about which teachers to lay off, and I wouldn’t expect administrators groups to have lots of ideas about how to streamline administration.”

Lee has defended the layoff warnings as a sensible choice when San Diego Unified was posed with the $80 million cut. It gave the school district an emergency option: School districts must warn educators of possible layoffs by March 15 or lose the option of cutting them. When Schwarzenegger softened his proposal in May and lessened the school cuts, the school board scaled back the layoffs. But the teachers union remains furious about the decision.

Microbiologist Mike Copass wasn’t wooed to Evans’ campaign by his stance on layoffs, he said. “But it’s consistent with who he is,” said Copass, a former Congressional candidate who donated to Evans. “He’s going to stand up for the kids first.”

Deciding whether to issue layoff warnings is a tightrope that school boards walk whenever budget cuts are proposed: Warning teachers of layoffs is unpopular, guts employee morale and can cost money. Deciding not to warn teachers means gambling that budgets can be balanced without thinning the ranks of teachers, nurses and counselors, well before the Legislature makes its final decisions about budgets, because if teachers are going to be laid off, they have to be notified in March.

“I believe we made the right decision,” Lee said in a recent interview. “To say there should be no teachers laid off is financially irresponsible. What’s your alternative?”

Lee declined to discuss budgeting for shortfalls this year, saying that San Diego Unified is still gauging whether its budget assumptions last year were accurate after the governor approved a budget nearly three months late in September. But she pledged that the budgeting process would mirror how San Diego Unified made its decisions this year, and would protect safety and school maintenance.

Her caution is touted by supporters, many of whom backed her first run for school board, and who defend the choice to warn teachers of layoffs. TaxpayersAdvocate.org founder Scott Barnett said it exemplified her willingness to make unpopular decisions if she believes they are right.

“I think it was a necessary thing at the time,” said Dot Jensen, a member of the Clairemont Town Council schools committee. “Maybe I’m conservative, but if you don’t have the money to pay someone you can’t hire them.”

The winning candidate is likely to face a San Diego Unified deficit that rivals or exceeds the shortfall that threatened schools last year, according to Plank and other experts. While California spared schools from many proposed cuts this year, the economic outlook for the state remains dismal and the fixes that averted deeper cuts or higher taxes this year — borrowing against future lottery windfalls, for instance — are temporary solutions. Plank guessed that the shortfall would be as severe as the Schwarzenegger proposal last January that spurred the school board to plan for nearly 1,000 teacher layoffs. Schools may even face midyear cuts.

“If anything next year could be worse,” said Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a nonprofit that analyzes education policy.

“They trimmed a little here, trimmed a little there and squeezed it through,” Perry said. “But it didn’t do the trick. They just managed to pull off one more year.”

Political consultants and analysts are unsurprised that the candidates are giving few specifics on how they would handle another school budget crisis. It parallels the queasiness on the state level, where legislators have been unable to agree on tax increases or spending cuts sufficient to end the shortfalls for schools and other state-funded programs. Getting down to specifics on how to slim school budgets means angering employees and parents who value those programs or practices.

“You’re going to anger a lot of people. It’s a no-win situation,” said political consultant Bob Glaser, owner of The La Jolla Group, who is not working with either candidate. “They’d rather be beaten up a little for not being specific.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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