The San Diego Unified board shied away from cutting administrators who help run programs for gifted and talented students, leaving advocates for gifted kids breathing a sigh of relief. But school board members also put some unpopular options back into play: Closing elementary schools with low enrollment and reconsolidating schools-within-a-school on its high school campuses.

The ideas came up at a budget workshop Tuesday as the school board tried to figure out how to close an estimated $91 million budget gap. School district officials rebuilt the budget based on ideals chosen by the school board, such as diversity and increasing achievement for all students. Now the school board is trying to refine those ideas, deciding which recommended cuts to explore and which to rule out.

Taking cuts to the gifted and talented programs off the table means forgoing nearly $400,000 in cuts from eliminating four jobs, including the program director, a clerk, a secretary and a resource teacher. The board didn’t formally rule out the cuts, but San Diego Unified is unlikely to keep exploring the idea because a majority of school board members openly said they wouldn’t back the plan. Marcia DiJiosia, who oversees the gifted programs, said the cuts would make it very difficult to sustain the program.

“We don’t want the staff to waste time on things” that the school board won’t support, member John Lee Evans explained. The only board member who disagreed was Shelia Jackson, who said everything should remain an option until the school district figures out how to close its deficit.

Board members also brought up other controversial cuts that staffers hadn’t recommended, such as collapsing its small high schools back into fewer, larger schools. The small high schools were created by breaking up several large campuses into multiple schools-within-a-school, each with its own theme. Some are highly successful; others have been less so.

School district officials estimated that reducing the administration at the small high schools and putting each campus under a single principal could save between $175,000 and $502,000 at each of the sites, with some yielding more savings than others.

School board members also raised the idea of closing elementary schools with low enrollment, another idea that staffers hadn’t recommended. Interim Superintendent Bill Kowba estimated that $450,000 could be saved for each school closed, though those estimates are hotly debated by critics. Shutting down schools is extremely controversial; San Diego Unified balked at the idea last year after months of debate.

Kowba cautioned that even bringing it up would be “a big deal.” But the school board decided to keep it in play for now. Board members also brought up the idea of eliminating all lobbying, staggered salary cuts that would hit higher-earning employees more than lower-earning employees and charging some students for busing. San Diego Unified will hold another budget meeting to talk about those and other possible savings next Tuesday.

— EMILY ALPERT

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