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Families that aren’t financially strapped might have to pay for busing or Advanced Placement exams for their kids. The school year could be snipped by a week. Popular programs that teach students about diversity and local history in Old Town and Balboa Park could be shortened, too. And some small high schools may have to share principals.

Those are a handful of the ways San Diego Unified would close an estimated $87 million deficit under a tentative plan put forward by the school board Tuesday night.

Doing so would also reduce more than 400 jobs, but it is unclear whether the district would have to lay off any permanent employees or whether it could rely on other, less painful tactics, such as cutting vacancies, not renewing teachers without tenure or not filling jobs after workers retire.

The school board agreed to $63 million in specific cuts that included the equivalent of 185 positions; it planned to cover the rest of the budget gap by slashing 232 unspecified jobs for educators. The budget plan also hinges on concessions from labor unions: $19 million of the proposed cuts and savings must be agreed to by workers at the bargaining table. Those cuts include giving workers five unpaid days off and temporarily increasing what they pay at the doctor’s office.

And while a majority of school board members — John de Beck, Shelia Jackson and Katherine Nakamura — said they wanted to seek a 6 percent salary cut for employees, the school district didn’t put that cut on the list. The idea has already been taken off the bargaining table in favor of furloughs.

“We’re not going to get it in negotiations, so it’s just dishonest” to include it in the budget plan, said school board President Richard Barrera.

Other cuts and savings that the school board has included in its tentative plan are:

  • Consolidating several schools-within-a-school at Crawford and San Diego High schools as learning communities with fewer, shared principals rather than completely separate schools ($296,000).
  • Continuing a spending freeze ($7.1 million).
  • Cutting tests that aren’t required by the state under No Child Left Behind ($1.1 million).
  • Re-organizing the central offices that oversee principals ($2.1 million).
  • Avoiding what school board members said was an unexplained increase in costs in special education projected for next year ($9 million).

The board steered clear of several other ideas, such as closing elementary schools with low enrollment, cutting librarians, closing a parent center and decentralizing its services and shuttering learning centers that help children who struggle with reading.

The financial plan is tentative, but it is a blueprint for what San Diego Unified might ultimately cut. Though school districts don’t have to finalize their budgets until the end of June, they must send in reports to the County Office of Education by March 15 that outline how they’ll balance their budgets. Those reports depend on state budget numbers that can change dramatically before school boards make their final decision.

The result is that San Diego Unified is hashing out a plan it might not ultimately follow if the state ends up cutting less than expected or if other savings arise later. Yet that plan is crucial because schools also face a deadline to warn most of their educators if they plan to lay them off. If they don’t give them that warning by March 15, schools cannot lay them off at all.

Human resources director Sandra Huezo said she wasn’t sure if the cutbacks would require layoffs or not. She told the school board that she would analyze salaries and retirement patterns this week to decide. The cutbacks aren’t expected to increase class sizes, something the board wants to avoid; Huezo said the human resources department would have to figure out how to reduce jobs without doing so.

Only one board member seemed dissatisfied with how the plan came together. “Frankly this is the worst decision I’ve ever faced,” de Beck said during the meeting. “But it’s also the worst process I’ve ever faced.”

Correction: I originally reported that the school board agreed to cut 129 positions through specified cuts.

I had confirmed that number with district officials. However, different school officials informed me after we published this post that the 129 figure was only for non-educator jobs, such as school secretaries. There were an additional 56 jobs for educators that weren’t included in that total.

So the total number of positions slated to be cut through the specified cuts is 185. I apologize for the error.

— EMILY ALPERT

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