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After another plan failed to dig up enough savings, San Diego Unified is now under even more pressure to squeeze employees to balance its budget.

The prolonged budget crisis has put some board members at odds with the same unions that helped to elect them — and jumbled the usual dynamics of the politicized board.

Longtime labor ally Richard Barrera is seeking deeper concessions from the teachers union, along with John Lee Evans, who was elected on a pledge to protect teachers. John de Beck and Shelia Jackson, who have often disagreed on labor issues in recent years, are both pushing the idea of progressive salary cuts that fall harder on employees who earn more.

And Katherine Nakamura, who is often at odds with the teachers union, called deeply cutting teachers’ salaries “unconscionable.”

“It’s almost surreal,” said Bruce McGirr, director of the union that represents principals and other administrators. “It’s like it flipped.”

Barrera, Evans and Jackson were fierce critics two years ago when Nakamura, de Beck and then-board member Mitz Lee warned hundreds of teachers of possible layoffs to handle a budget crisis. Evans rode a wave of discontent over the planned layoffs to office; Barrera and Jackson were also backed by the teachers union. They steered clear of layoffs last year, pushing the school district to find other savings.

Critics derided them as lackeys for the labor unions who weren’t willing to ask employees to take cuts. Evans countered that they had found a third way to make ends meet, avoiding both layoffs and gutting beloved programs.

Now the same board members have concluded that this year, there isn’t another way — not without asking employees to pare back their paychecks by as much as 8 percent.

That bitter conclusion has turned the familiar blocs on the board upside down. Evans and Barrera are repeating the mantra that everyone — including employees — will have to chip in. Jackson is also backing the idea of salary cuts, but she broke from Evans and Barrera by criticizing their unusual new budgeting process along with de Beck. And de Beck has always been unpredictable.

“I don’t know that there’s any coalescing into camps yet,” Barrera said. “You saw five people reacting in five different ways. There’s nobody who can say, ‘I’m in the majority.’”

And though Nakamura isn’t about to become the darling of the teachers union, she has argued that the school board has to push back against the cuts in Sacramento. Her stances haven’t changed: Nakamura still believes it might be prudent to warn employees of potential layoffs and agrees that employee concessions are necessary. But as the board talks about its budget, she’s playing a different role — the voice of protest instead of the responsible budget cruncher.

“I find it uplifting that Katherine Nakamura wouldn’t support an 8 percent salary reduction,” said David Fernandez, labor relations representative for office and business workers. “But it kind of does go against everything she’s said before.”

Several things are different this year in school board politics: Jackson has dropped the idea of running for county supervisor and is speaking up more now, sounding more like the dissident she used to be than the subdued board president she recently was.

De Beck and Nakamura are up for re-election. They could be tempted to vote against unpopular but arguably necessary decisions that they know will pass anyhow — a method that could help them score political points — just as Jackson was accused of doing in the past.

And Barrera and Evans aren’t the new kids in town anymore. McGirr said that the two had matured as school board members, grown more trusting of the school district numbers and already proven their labor bona fides, most notably through a labor pact on school renovations.

Nakamura joked that being on the school board beats the idealism out of you.

“They never would have done this before. I think it’s dawning on them that they’re going to be presiding over a disaster,” de Beck said of Evans and Barrera talking about salary cuts. “They’re trying their best to keep their promises to the teachers. But they can’t do it. So how do they make it palatable?”

The budget pressures are also different this year: Board members feel like they’ve exhausted their options. They can’t give out another bonus to get employees to leave. They can’t bank on more stimulus money. And an unusual plan to completely remake the school district budget found only $39 million in possible savings — far less than the $91 million gap they’re bracing for.

The school board might not even make those recommended cuts. Some are deeply unpopular; others may not actually help because they save money that is earmarked for specific purposes. Board members urged the staff to go back and see if they could find anything else. But this is only the latest in a long series of budget cutbacks. While there may be other savings to scrape up, few school board members believe that big savings are still sitting around to be found that wouldn’t be painful or unpalatable.

Talk of a parcel tax is in the air, but it wouldn’t bring any money in this year. Layoffs are the trump card: San Diego Unified has pledged to unions that it won’t lay off employees this year if they agree to slash salaries.

“This should have been the original question years ago — do you want to lose positions or do you want to lose pay?” said David Page, the parent leader of a district committee on disadvantaged students.

The board is loath to seek layoffs, but forgoing them could pose problems. Many of the cuts that staffers came up with by remaking the budget would involve cutting staff. San Diego Unified must warn educators by March 15 if it plans to lay them off, or it will lose that option entirely.

The result is that the school board is under intense pressure to work out a deal with the teachers’ union, in particular, because it will lose much of its leverage in a month. Teachers balked at the idea of an 8 percent salary cut and countered with an offer to take three furlough days — the equivalent of a 1.6 percent cut.

But the union offer has two big sticking points: They want to plug any savings from trimming back benefits back into teacher salaries, rather than the budget hole, and to reduce furlough days if San Diego Unified comes up with more savings.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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