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The San Diego Unified board narrowly approved a tentative plan to balance its budget for the next three school years on Tuesday night, following months of budget discussions that saw the expected deficit volley from $147 million to $180 million and eventually down to $80 million.

The new $1.1 billion spending plan for the next school year will slash budgets for school supplies and make classes larger, but it includes no layoffs or furloughs for workers, nor does it eliminate arts or athletics programs or involve closing schools, as parents had once feared.

The board split on the budget along familiar lines: John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura voted no, arguing that the plan was tilted too far to saving teachers’ jobs at the expense of other programs, while Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson voted for the plan as their best option in a crisis. The budget is due to the County Office of Education by the end of the month.

“I can’t subscribe to this,” Nakamura said. Alluding to the teachers union, she added, “There are special interests that got this board elected — and I have to admit they got what they paid for.”

Parents and principals in attendance decried the cuts that they felt would wound schools most. Bruce McGirr, president of the Administrators Association, marshaled a group of principals to protest the fact that fewer vice principals will be staffing their schools.

Earlene Dunbar, who oversees elementary school counseling, pleaded to save counseling jobs to keep attendance high, discipline issues under control, and test scores intact. Fernando Rivas, the father of a Central Elementary student with diabetes who relies heavily on the school nurse for care, said that the class size increases would be devastating for their school.

“It’s going to make us like a Third World country,” he said. “Which is where some of us come from.”

The budget includes $80.2 million in cuts for 2009-2010 and anticipates deficits of nearly $65 million and $171 million in the two following years. The plan also lists some extremely tentative cuts to balance the 2010-2011 budget, including the unpopular options of slashing programs in Balboa Park and Old Town, and upping the caseloads of middle and high school counselors. Evans cautioned that those ideas were a “worst case scenario” and that they would try to find alternatives before the budget deadline next summer.

“We will start on July 1 as we started this year” working to avoid the severest cuts, Jackson said.

EMILY ALPERT

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