Slashing the school day for kindergarteners. Cutting busing to magnet schools. Closing schools.

Those are just a handful of the budget cuts that San Diego Unified has in mind to close a predicted deficit of more than $120 million — a gap that could jeopardize more than 1,400 workers and gut programs that have only been trimmed so far. State officials warn it won’t be pretty.

But a quick history lesson might give you pause. While schools have taken cuts year after year, those cuts have often fallen short of predicted pain, as the state and feds change their plans.

For instance, two years ago San Diego Unified pegged its deficit at $63 million. That ballooned to $147 million, then to $180 million. But the number ultimately dropped to $90 million. One school board member called it baffling. The year before that, the school district warned nearly 1,000 teachers that their jobs were on the chopping block, and ended up sparing most of them.

So is it time to freak out about school budget cuts? Is it too soon to say how bad things will be? Or will the cuts end up being dialed back again?

I don’t know what the Sacramento lawmakers who control the purse strings will do. And I can’t tell you how voters will react to a possible special election. But budget wonks believe this will be the worst year yet for schools. They don’t see an easy way to lessen the pain.

Here’s what to watch on the budget front to help you figure out whether to freak out.

Why Do Budgets Jiggle in the First Place?

Here is why budgets seem like Jell-O: School districts have to forge ahead with budget plans before they know how much money the state will give them. The financial crunch has made things even less predictable as the state throws sudden changes at schools, such as slashing $133 million in funding for mental health services.

Schools have also been jolted by unexpected help from the federal government. San Diego County received roughly $360 million in stimulus money to lessen the pain. Congress also passed a bill to save teachers’ jobs.

And even when money seems to be in the bank, school districts aren’t sure whether to count on it. School districts were told not to bank on millions of dollars that were included in the state budget this fall, because California would likely take the money away this year.

“Everyone knew the budget was going to blow open,” said San Diego Unified school board President Richard Barrera. “It was a fake budget.”

Will The Same Thing Happen This Year?

California has few ways to soften cuts this year. Stimulus money is running out. The state has often relied on gimmicks such as delaying payments instead of tackling its systemic shortfalls.

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown recently warned school officials to sit down when they read his budget proposals. One common prediction is that Brown will write a “scorched earth budget” in January that avoids gimmicks and imposes severe cuts, said Monica Henestroza, who handles government affairs for San Diego Unified.

“There’s a quiet sense that we are in real trouble,” said Deputy Superintendent Phil Stover.

The silver lining for schools is that Brown wants get the budget passed in just 60 days, which would at least tell schools how much they need to cut before they actually make cuts.

But schools could still be in budget limbo for a long time: Brown is widely expected to seek a special election to ask voters to extend taxes. That means schools would have to wait on election results to know how deep their deficits really are, even though they have to decide on layoffs in March and finalize their budgets by the end of June.

“We won’t really have the facts until after June on what our revenues even roughly are,” said school board member Scott Barnett. And that, in turn, could make things sticky for politicians like him.

So What Do Politicians Do With a Jell-O Budget?

Tough choices like whether to cut teachers become even tougher when schools are unsure whether their numbers are real.

School board members can’t help but remember Mitz Lee, the school board member who voted to prepare for hundreds of teacher layoffs.

The budget got rosier and most teachers were spared — but Lee lost her seat in the middle of a wave of anger over the layoff scare.

The result is a kind of budget doublethink, where politicians plan for the worst, but are also reluctant to take the numbers too seriously, lest they overreact and be accused of playing Chicken Little.

For instance, in November, the school board had to set forth its planned cuts for the County Office of Education.

Uneasy with pitting one program against another while the numbers were still uncertain, the school board decided to just send its whole list of $146 million in possible cuts, a way to delay its decisions until budget predictions were firmer.

And here is where it gets tricky. If Brown does seek a special election, chances are that the numbers will still be iffy in March, when school districts have to warn teachers if they want to lay them off.

That means that yet again, the school board will be forced to decide whether to slash programs and dismiss workers while its budget remains uncertain. And as they weigh what to cut and what to spare, they’ll have to ask themselves the same question we’re stuck with: Is it time to freak out? Or not?

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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