Tuesday, April 14, 2009 | San Diego Unified will not warn a single teacher of a possible layoff this year, a move made Tuesday night that was praised by workers but set off alarm bells among critics.

It underscored a bitter rift on the board over whether its budget crisis can be weathered without layoffs. And it renewed a pledge made by new and reelected school board members to avoid cutting employees — one that opponents argue is foolish in the middle of deep uncertainty over what money the schools can expect and whether its plans will work.

“We have painted ourselves into a corner,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura, who voted to lay off teachers last year in the middle of a budget crisis. She added, “I am very worried about how we are going to pay our bills.”

Staffers yanked a proposal off the meeting agenda that would have warned more than 230 educators in their first two years with the school district that their jobs were on the line. Cutting those jobs was estimated by staffers to save more than $16 million. Even if the proposal had gone up for a vote, it seemed unlikely that it would pass, with board members Shelia Jackson, John Lee Evans and Richard Barrera banding together against the idea of cutting teachers.

“We have made a decision,” Barrera said, responding to Nakamura. “And that’s to stick by our teachers.” He noted that when the new school board started pressing for alternatives to layoffs, the school district had scrounged up millions in previously unknown savings. “We’ve done a good job of that so far. We’re going to keep doing that.”

The cuts were floated as San Diego Unified faces continued uncertainty over its budget. Nobody knows exactly how much money will pour into the budget from the federal stimulus bill, nobody is sure whether unions will agree to the cuts the school district has proposed to make ends meet, and nobody knows how many teachers and other employees will take a buyout that would allow the school district to thin its staff without layoffs.

“We are dealing with so many unknowns that you’re not sure what the impacts are going to be,” said Chief Human Resources Officer Sam Wong. His department created the proposal to give the school board “flexibility” if it ultimately needed to cut teachers. It is unclear why the idea was taken off the table. Wong said someone higher than him made that call. “There is a lot hinging now on who takes this [buyout.] This was trying to relieve the pressure a little bit.”

The buyout, commonly called a golden handshake, is a crucial part of the school budget calculus. The idea is that San Diego Unified will nudge hundreds of veteran employees with high salaries out of the district. Some will be replaced by less experienced, less expensive workers; others will not be replaced at all. The district plans to balance that exodus with program cuts that would leave hundreds of fewer jobs for employees.

But the plan is not foolproof. To trim the budget, the number and type of jobs cut must roughly match the number and type of employees that depart with the golden handshake. If that does not happen, San Diego Unified could end up cutting jobs but having to find new ones for employees who were displaced, resulting in lesser savings.

Workers have until May 8 to decide if they are taking the buyout, which means San Diego Unified does not yet know how many employees will ultimately sign up. Its goal is to get 633 educators to enroll. Seventy three educators have already decided to take the bonus, said Wong, who noted that employees usually wait until the last week to sign up.

Furthermore, San Diego Unified has yet to hash out an agreement with its unions that would allow for furloughs and boost class sizes to eliminate jobs. Such concessions are a cornerstone of its current budget plans, which include about $34 million in cuts that must be approved by the unions. But enlarging classes and cutting benefits are the exact opposite of what the union is now pushing for at the bargaining table as its contract comes up for review.

“It isn’t that teachers are entitled to better jobs than other people,” said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association. “It’s that increasing class sizes means less teacher contact with students. It is the worst thing.”

San Diego Unified had already taken a stance against the disruptive and politically explosive step of sending out layoff warnings to teachers, which threw the school district into turmoil last year.

Last month it steered clear of laying off permanent teachers, a move that guaranteed that most teachers in the school district did not have to worry about losing their jobs. But a quirk in the San Diego teachers contract allows the district to wait another month to warn probationary teachers — those in their first two years with the schools — that their jobs could be slashed.

“Here I am facing another summer of uncertainty,” said Rebecca Gray, a fine arts teacher at Point Loma High School who came to the school board meeting believing that her job might be jeopardized. She was laid off and rehired last year. “It’s pretty stressful.”

Schools will still have some wiggle room if jobs absolutely must be cut: San Diego Unified now employs more than 400 temporary teachers whose jobs are not guaranteed at the end of the year.

The school district has already planned for $147 million in cuts based on the budget passed by the California legislature. Staffers believe they will get nearly $67 million in federal stimulus money earmarked for specific programs such as special education, technology and initiatives that help disadvantaged students. Those funds can help defray some cuts but can only be used for their specified purposes, limiting their usefulness. Los Angeles Unified, the only school district in the state that is larger than San Diego Unified, recently canceled thousands of layoffs in the hopes that stimulus money will help blunt the cuts.

But staffers are unsure how much they will get from another pool of federal stimulus money meant to help firm up state and school budgets. Nobody is sure how California will decide to divvy up those funds.

School board members have lobbied state lawmakers to refill school budgets the same way they were cut — a change that Barrera estimated could mean another $20 million or more for San Diego Unified. And there is pressure to use the money not just to plug their budget hole, but to innovate with new programs and approaches such as lengthening the school year.

“I know all the schools are really anxious to know” what is happening with the stimulus money, said Tina Jung, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education. “But it takes time. We haven’t gotten the details yet.”

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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