Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | Classes will grow a little larger, school employees will pay more money when they visit the doctor, and fewer buses will deliver kids to magnet schools under a plan begrudgingly adopted by the San Diego Unified board to close a budget gap that had widened to nearly $147 million for next school year.

The plan hinges on San Diego Unified being able to negotiate with its unions to boost class sizes, furlough employees for four days, and increase what workers pay when they go to the doctor’s office. If the unions do not agree to those plans, the school district could resort to closing a dozen schools with low enrollment or eliminating high school athletics, visual and performing arts, or popular programs that take students to Old Town and Balboa Park.

School board members relished neither scenario, and they urged students, parents and employees to protest to state lawmakers about the cuts. School board member John Lee Evans compared the choices before him to “Sophie’s Choice” — a novel in which a woman in a concentration camp is forced to choose which of her two children will live — with arts, athletics, and academics all vying to survive.

“None of us want to see … hardly anything on any of these lists,” Evans said, adding, “As soon as we do this, we need to turn around and say, ‘We are going to change this situation.’”

Like all California school districts, San Diego Unified must submit a financial report to the County Office of Education by next week that explains how it will balance the books for the next two years. Failing to send that report could allow the County Office to prevent the school district from making any payments at all. And sending a faulty or inadequate report could require San Diego Unified to bring a fiscal advisor on board or even cede control over its own budgeting if lesser measures fail.

“I woke up wanting to say, ‘We’re not going to do it,’” said school board member Richard Barrera. But refusing to make the cuts and letting San Diego Unified be financially paralyzed or taken over by outsiders would be worse, he said. “We’re doing what we can right now to not surrender control of our district to people who will not listen to you.”

Though the plan will not be finalized until June, it reveals which cuts San Diego Unified is willing to make, which cuts it will make if forced, and which cuts are its last resort. It cannot include the money it hopes to reap from the federal stimulus bill in its projections because it is still uncertain how much it will get, when it will get it, and what strings will be attached. It dubbed its two scenarios Plan A and Plan B.

Plan A would make classes larger in nearly all grade levels and in its classes for the highly gifted, force small elementary schools to share principals, and cut transportation for magnet programs that draw students from across the school district. It would also cut back on employee benefits and mandate that all workers take four days off without pay — options that cannot be unrolled unless unions agree.

But if that plan fails at the bargaining table, San Diego Unified has a Plan B that includes cutting back on school supplies, landscaping and elementary school counseling, and politically toxic options such as closing small schools, shuttering programs in Old Town and Balboa Park, and completely jettisoning its arts programs and high school athletics. Hundreds of students and teachers toting musical instruments packed the auditorium and halls of San Diego Unified to protest any cuts to their programs. Some even played a concert outside the meeting to draw attention from television cameras and crews.

Cutting the arts would mean “cutting a lot of dreams of a lot of different students,” said Charles Spencer, a senior at Madison High School who lugged his broken tuba to the meeting. Duct tape secures one of its valves, Spencer said, because the school has no money left to fix it. He said music was the thing that brought him to school every day. Others defended theatre and painting as essentials that could not be cut.

“You’re not safe,” school board member John de Beck warned the students, noting that the arts could be cut if Plan A fails. He and school board member Katherine Nakamura voted against Plan B and were overruled. “You’re basically getting a reprieve.”

While no final decisions have been made, San Diego Unified shunted several options to the back of its list, including cutting salaries, eliminating preparation time for elementary teachers, spreading its nurses over more schools, and gutting its magnet programs. It has avoided laying off teachers so far, but staffers hinted that if too few workers take a golden handshake meant to prod them to retire, the district might have to cut temporary teachers or teachers who lack tenure to make ends meet.

Nakamura was not convinced that those cuts were enough of a safety net to prevent the arts or other programs from being liquidated. She criticized the board majority of Evans, Barrera and Shelia Jackson for avoiding issuing layoff warnings, which threw San Diego Unified into an uproar last year as hundreds of employees feared losing their jobs. Such warnings must be sent to permanent teachers in March or they cannot be laid off.

“We are making decisions that frighten children and students and parents because we did not have the will to make employees worry,” she said.

Earlier this year, San Diego Unified was bracing for more than $63 million in cuts for the next school year, but the deficit deepened after state legislators finalized their budget. Between the cuts made in Sacramento, increases in routine costs such as salaries, benefits and utilities, and a plan to revamp funding for individual schools, the school district found itself scraping for more than $147 million — more than double its original estimate.

Some of its choices were easier than others. School board members agreed weeks ago to streamline bus routes and eliminate jobs in its central offices to save money. They also offered workers a golden handshake to leave the schools, making it easier to trim programs without laying off employees. And staffers are predicting more than $13 million in new income from boosting student attendance and changing lunch schedules to get more high schoolers to eat a reimbursable meal.

But those cuts and changes added up to only $47 million in savings. That meant that the school board still needed to find nearly $100 million in cuts Tuesday before it could reassure the county superintendent that its books were balanced. And it was impossible to find those savings without turning to its employee unions because staffers found only $75 million in potential cuts that would not require bargaining or at least consulting with the unions, district spokesman Bernie Rhinerson said.

“They just don’t have a lot of good choices,” Rhinerson said. He added, “Our hope is, ‘Let’s make the cuts today. Then tomorrow let’s get the state to change how it funds education.’”

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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