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Tuesday, June 2, 2009 | Faced with a smaller-than-expected deficit, San Diego Unified leaders opted Tuesday to spare arts and athletics programs, forgo closing schools, and keep popular programs in Old Town and Balboa Park intact and closed nearly all of its budget gap with other cuts.

“I told you it would take a miracle,” school board member John de Beck said. “I consider this a miracle.”

The expected shortfall for the school district suddenly dropped from $180 million to $106 million on Tuesday — a 40 percent change — after staffers tallied up new numbers for state funding and added up the actual savings from freezing spending earlier in the school year. It was a welcome surprise to the school board, which heard hours of protests from parents, teachers and students fearful of the cuts.

“Juvenile hall is full,” said Susan Newman, a juvenile probation officer whose children go to school in Scripps Ranch. “We don’t have room for any more kids — so please, keep these programs.”

Many — but not all — of those programs and services were saved. Grappling with the reduced deficit, the school board opted for a wide array of cuts that saved more than $100 million on Tuesday, nearly solving its budget problems without getting concessions from its unions or slashing mainstays such as the arts.

Classes will grow larger for the youngest students, rising from 20 to 24 kids between kindergarten and 3rd grade to save nearly $14.6 million. Student-to-teacher ratios will grow from 23 to 25 in classes for the most gifted students to save $330,000. And a controversial plan spearheaded by Superintendent Terry Grier that reduced class sizes at a select group of schools as part of a research study — a plan that the teachers union derided as a wasteful “grand experiment” created without their input — was jettisoned to save $8.1 million.

The school district will also reduce busing by $4.24 million by only providing buses when there are 15 or more students on the route, instead of sending buses to pick up as few as eight children, as it does now. That change will not actually bar anyone from taking the bus, but will force families to go further to catch the bus, centralizing stops in fewer locations. Eight fewer landscapers will trim campuses across the city. School lunches will cost an extra 25 cents. More than two dozen counselors will be absent from elementary schools, 30 vice principals have been eliminated, and funding for school supplies will be reduced 25 percent.

San Diego Unified will also tap some of the stimulus money meant for next year — $6.2 million in funds for students with disabilities that staffers said can be used for other purposes — and $6.5 million that would be used to replace textbooks. Grier said that instead, the schools would strive to switch to electronic textbooks, seek out more federal stimulus money to cover the costs, or just find more money elsewhere through other cuts.

“I don’t know that that’s a good answer,” he said, “but it’s the answer.”

The cuts build on more than $43 million in reductions that had already been approved by the board, including more than $11 million in savings from its golden handshake, an exit bonus designed to clear out veteran employees, and $6.8 million in central office staffers whose jobs were slashed. That added up to more than $100 million, almost buttoning up the $106 million deficit.

Several factors added up to the lower shortfall: San Diego Unified is getting roughly $17 million more in state revenue than it had estimated, though it is suffering slightly deeper cuts in federal and local funds. It is getting $4 million more than expected in stimulus money meant to firm up its budget.

And it saved far more money than earlier imagined by freezing spending at the central offices and at schools. Until last week, the school district was budgeting based on estimated spending, but when staffers added up how much had actually been spent up until April, after the superintendent clamped down on purchases and required approval from top school district officials for any exceptions, they found they had saved roughly $13 million and pared back on outside contracts for services by more than $26 million. Those and other differences added up to nearly $74 million in funding, cutting back on the deficit by roughly 40 percent, from $180 million to $106 million out of its $1.2 billion general fund.

The slimmed shortfall was a game-changer. It gave the school board much wider latitude to choose or forgo cuts, instead of forcing them to adopt nearly all of the proposed plans to close their deficit, as school board members earlier worried they might need to do. They took many proposed cuts off the table, including eliminating the arts, athletics and popular programs in Old Town and Balboa Park, firmly opposed the closure of schools, and altered plans to streamline busing so that families would not need to wake up as early, a change that will reduce those savings from $2.4 million to roughly $2 million.

“Balboa Park and Old Town … are not accessible to every kid in this community,” de Beck said, arguing for keeping those programs. He added, “There are kids in Barrio Logan that haven’t even seen the bay. If it’s a program that we believe in, we ought to stick with it.”

San Diego Unified still has to find roughly $1.9 million to close its budget gap, but staffers and school board members were confident that it could do so without resorting to cuts that were deeply unpopular or financially risky. Remaining options include merging its warehouse and distribution services to save $1.1 million, a cut that the school board tabled to get more information, and upping caseloads for middle school and high school counselors to save $850,000. The choices have steered the school district clear of most of its least desirable cuts and avoided cuts that need to be bargained with its unions, such as salary cuts or reducing healthcare benefits.

“I’m just glad that we kept asking questions,” said school board member John Lee Evans. “That we didn’t say, ‘Well, this is the shortfall’ and keep chopping and chopping. It justifies what we’ve been doing.”

Staffers warned that the numbers could still change.

Federal funding in the budget is still based on estimates, some funds could be delayed by the state until next year, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is still floating the idea of additional cuts. Numbers could fluctuate if San Diego Unified proves to have spent more — or less — than originally estimated in May and June. Staffers are now estimating that it will save $4.5 million by freezing spending in those two months. School board members voted to limit spending on district credit cards even more tightly, hoping to squeeze more savings in the remaining weeks of the fiscal year, which ends in just four weeks.

Unlike last year, when San Diego Unified warned nearly 1,000 teachers that their jobs were at stake during a budget crisis, the school board avoided layoffs, largely by offering employees a buyout and jettisoning temporary employees whose jobs are not guaranteed at the end of the year.

That choice split parents and observers. Some believed the choice was wise, sparing schools from the turmoil of layoffs. Others argued that the newly elected board majority, which had strong backing from the union during the elections, was sparing its workers at the expense of its students, especially as dire proposals of cutting the arts or athletics were aired. The idea of declaring impasse with the teachers union was floated by county Taxpayers Association President Lani Lutar at the Tuesday meeting and earlier by de Beck.

“We managed to save a lot of things that I didn’t think there was a chance to be able to do,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura. She later added, “I still think we’re taking a gamble on this — but this buys us at least a couple of weeks. We’re so much closer than we were.”

The deadline for San Diego Unified to craft a balanced budget is June 30. Failing to do so could put the school district at risk of losing control of its finances to the County Office of 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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