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School district staffers have offered up a long list of possible cuts to fill a budget gap that could range from $147 million to $203 million. Their ideas include cutbacks that must be negotiated with reluctant labor unions as well as politically toxic ideas such as completely eliminating librarians and vice principals, jettisoning the arts and magnet programs and closing five schools. But if California makes the deepest cuts possible, in the worst way possible, the school district could take every one of those dreaded steps and still wouldn’t be able to close the gap.

“I don’t have any answers right now,” said school board member Richard Barrera, who voiced concern about the situation last week. “But we’ve got to stay patient. These numbers can change.”

San Diego Unified has fewer choices this year than last. It already devoted its stimulus money to keep teachers by whittling down class sizes, leaving a looming problem when those dollars dry up next year. It avoided teacher layoffs and slimmed down its staff with a golden handshake, which is expected to slow down retirements — and the savings they bring — this year.

Board members backed by the teachers union are reluctant to seek pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs. Slashing salaries or the work year would require the unions’ blessing.

Instead, the school board majority has taken a cautious approach. Its members are quietly prodding unions to alter benefits. Board members want to build the budget from scratch for savings, but that may not happen quickly. An internal team is scrubbing the budget for more solutions and has found $33.7 million so far. They hope a spending and hiring freeze will reap more hidden savings. One of the dissenting trustees, John de Beck, derides the tactics as “chicken feed” too small for a gaping problem.

“We need to do something really drastic,” said de Beck, who wants a lengthy furlough to cover the cuts. Staffers are still calculating whether it would pencil out. “If the board doesn’t want that, let the state take us over. That’s what will happen.”

Unions counter that the financial numbers are far from firm and such severe steps would be premature.

Deficit estimates have historically been much larger than the ultimate cuts. Last year, San Diego Unified girded for $180 million in cuts and ultimately cut only $93 million.

Budget projections shifted constantly in past years, sometimes because of factors beyond schools’ control, such as the economy and changes in Sacramento. It is also unclear which parts of the budget will suffer. The nightmare scenario that Barrera fears, for instance, depends on how the state makes its cuts.

If California cuts heavily from one kind of fund — known as unrestricted money — schools don’t have enough strategies to handle it. But if the state splits its cuts among different funds, San Diego Unified may be able to cope.

“We’re not inclined to react to fake numbers,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. “It only serves to divide people.”

Parents, employees and school board members are reluctant to make painful cuts until they know it is clearly necessary. But the ultimate, real numbers won’t be clear until legislators make decisions in spring, too late for San Diego Unified to opt for teacher layoffs and cutting it close for labor talks on other cuts. The school board is left with an unsavory choice: Take a political and emotional risk to prepare for the worst — or take a financial risk trusting that things will improve or that schools will find other options.

“They’re looking at impending doom,” said Monica Henestroza, government relations director for San Diego Unified. “But the school district and the state are doing the same thing. They don’t want to make cuts if they don’t have to. So they’re saying, ‘Let’s postpone a little bit.’”

Some parents have grown insistent on employee cuts, cheering for furloughs or pushing to cut benefits. Parent organizer Debbie O’Toole said that it would be irresponsible for San Diego Unified to forgo pink slips, the warnings that school districts must send teachers before laying them off. She doesn’t want to see classes grow, but pointed out that eliminating other programs or departments means cutting staff.

“There’s really no other choice,” O’Toole said.

Some shreds of hope glimmer for school budgets, but they may not pan out in time or at all. School board members might ask voters for a parcel tax that could boost school funding as much as $50 million annually, but district consultant Larry Remer said it likely wouldn’t go on the ballot until November.

San Diego Unified also wants lawmakers to stop penalizing schools for increasing class sizes, which could save more than $8 million, but legislators would have to pass legislation. Grants might help, but are often saddled with requirements that San Diego Unified pony up matching funds that it might not have.

California is already supposed to provide a minimum level of funding for schools, but it has broken that guarantee before. It also set limits for school cuts in exchange for federal stimulus dollars. David Page, who oversees a school district committee on funding for disadvantaged students, said California couldn’t legally cut $203 million — the worst-case scenario — from San Diego Unified under that rule. But school officials say they aren’t banking on that promise because nobody knows how the federal government will punish states — if at all — for breaking it.

School boards plan to sue the state over funding, but that battle could take a long time. The California Teachers Association is eyeing some ballot measures to increase school funding, but they would land on the ballot after school districts have approved their budgets. And while President Obama is dangling more money in front of school districts through a federal competition, California still faces hurdles to get the money. For instance, states are supposed to bring school districts on board with favored reforms, such as linking teacher evaluation to test scores, but San Diego Unified leaders are firmly opposed to that idea.

Other school districts are facing similarly ugly choices. Vista schools are looking at a $13.5 million deficit. Its assistant superintendent says the district cannot completely cover that gap unless it bargains cuts with employees. Chula Vista schools are expecting a $10 million cut and Poway is bracing for $17 million. And Sweetwater schools are planning for a $28 million cut, but unlike San Diego Unified, it still has stimulus money and other one-time funds it can use to cover the gap next year.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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