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If California legislators don’t quickly pass a law to stop school districts from having to return money for students with severe disabilities, San Diego Unified leaders will have to decide whether to dip deeper into their reserves or slash $18 million more from the district budget.

California is slated to pull special education funding that is already either budgeted for this school year or spent last year. That 11th-hour cut wasn’t included in the budget San Diego Unified passed this summer.

The County Office of Education, which reviews and approves school district budgets, flagged the San Diego Unified budget because of that omission. It approved the budget — but with conditions.

If lawmakers decide to stop the state from demanding the special education funds, San Diego Unified is home free, said Phil Stover, its deputy superintendent of business. A bill introduced by Assemblyman Marty Block would do just that. Chief District Relations Officer Bernie Rhinerson said the district is optimistic about its chances and that it will likely go to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger early next week.

But if lawmakers don’t approve the bill, San Diego Unified has two options.

Stover said the school district could get approval from the County Office of Education if the school board slashes its reserve funds down to roughly 0.67 percent — a much lower threshold than school district have been required to keep in the past. It could also choose to cut $18 million more from its budget.

The County Office was also wary of the fact that San Diego Unified has been spending more money than it gets. It estimated that the school district will have to cut $36 million more than the $127 million it is already planning to cut next school year in order to make ends meet.

The school board must make any needed budget adjustments by Sept. 8. Getting conditional approval for the school district budget also means that San Diego Unified will have to submit its next budget plan to the County Office earlier than usual, by December 15 of this year instead of March.

San Diego Unified isn’t the only school system in this boat: Budgets for Grossmont Union High School District, Carlsbad Unified, Ramona Unified, and Borrego Springs Unified school districts also were conditionally approved. Thirteen other school districts in the county were asked to provide more information before their budgets could be approved. They learned of the verdicts earlier this week.

— EMILY ALPERT

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