Here’s my breakdown of the top four issues in local education to watch in 2010. These are the things I’ll be focusing on and the unanswered questions worth paying attention to:

Budgets, Budgets, Budgets

How big will deficits actually be? And how will San Diego Unified balance its books if the shortfall really is that bad?

And there’s a third, crucial question: Can schools actually fend off the cuts by protesting to Sacramento? The school board is sounding the alarm and asking parents to fight back. But with little support for tax increases in the state Legislature, it’s unclear whether they can turn the tide.

The Next Superintendent

Nobody is looking for the next San Diego Unified superintendent right now — and that itself may be the story.

Busy coping with the budget, the school board has postponed its search for a next chief and questioned whether the usual method of fielding candidates in a secretive search is the best solution. How will the next chief steer San Diego Unified? And does it really need one?

Rules of Engagement for Teachers and Principals

The teachers union has won an agreement on teacher workloads, one of the stickiest issues at the bargaining table, but it still hasn’t settled its contract.

That leaves a lot open at a hectic time when budgets are under the gun. (See above.) Will teachers agree to freeze their salaries or adjust their benefits? Will the union grow weary of the lengthy talks at the bargaining table and start to protest? Just look at Sweetwater to see how ugly these things can get.

Meanwhile, principals and other school administrators are starting to hammer out their first contract. Unions are still rarer for principals than for other school employees; their work rules are another thing to watch this year.

The Ballot Box

The two dissenting voices on the San Diego Unified board — Katherine Nakamura and John de Beck — are up for reelection this fall.

De Beck is considered the Teflon school board member. He says outrageous things. He throws out wild ideas. And he gets elected over and over. Meanwhile, Nakamura has styled herself as the sober voice of reason on an activist board, especially on financial issues.

This election can’t tip the political balance of the board, but it could serve as a political barometer. Will they keep their seats?

My Top Five School Stories of 2009

*Money: It was like a miracle. One day San Diego Unified was facing a deficit of nearly $200 million. Then that number fell dramatically. The switch saved beloved programs, but it also undercut trust in the school district numbers, fairly or unfairly.

*Personality: You loved him. You hated him. You wanted him gone. You hoped he wouldn’t go. He left. San Diego Unified lost another superintendent, the firebrand Terry Grier, to a bigger school district where leaders were more in tune with his views — and where they were also willing to pay him more money. We covered his ups, downs and the fallout when he called it quits.

*Victory: Test scores rose. Suspension and dropout rates fell. San Diego Unified has plenty of critics, but by the numbers, it got lots of good news this year.

*Controversy: A $2.1 billion school construction bond becomes a flashpoint for controversy. The school board was under fire for setting a labor agreement on its school construction bond and for swapping what was once imagined as an elementary school for a charter high school in the downtown library — what the inimitable Scott Lewis dubbed the schoobrary.

*Finally: Just barely squeaking into the year, our series dissected the complex and sometimes dysfunctional system that places teachers in schools in San Diego Unified, what pushes teachers away from some schools, and what San Diego can learn from New York City. This isn’t a story with clear villains or clear answers. But it’s the kind of work we want to do: truly explaining your city.

And just for kicks, here are five smaller stories to remember. They weren’t the big news — but they sure made it more interesting:

*A single elementary school shows the risks and rewards of special education mainstreaming.

*I’ve never had so much fun in calculus class.

*We dig out more details on an alleged conflict of interest at the County Office of Education.

*What happens when you teach all children as if they’re gifted?

*One word: Venison.

— EMILY ALPERT

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