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You’ve probably heard a lot about school budget cuts. And when you do, you usually hear big numbers like the $120 million that San Diego Unified estimates it has to slash from its budget. But to really understand what the cuts mean, I decided it was time to think small.

Really small. Juarez Elementary is blink-and-miss-it small. Only 267 kids learn and play on its tiny Serra Mesa site. It’s so small I accidentally drove past it the first time I went for a visit.

Now it has just two weeks to decide how to live on nearly $125,000 less than it did this year, juggling decisions the school board normally has to reckon with. And I’m going to follow along with the school as it does.

There are a few good reasons to think small. Seeing what the cuts mean at a single small school is easier to wrap your brain around than a bureaucrat’s litany of cuts. Besides, many of the hard choices about what to cut won’t be made at school board meetings this year. They’ll be made at schools like Juarez.

San Diego Unified this year is leaving decisions about what to cut to the schools. Small schools like Juarez will get more per pupil than larger ones because they cost more to run, continuing the longstanding practice in San Diego Unified. But that doesn’t mean they’re not cut.

That is where Juarez Elementary sits now. It faces an 11 percent cut in its basic funding compared to last year. San Diego Unified is guaranteeing them a principal and a minimum number of teachers. The central offices will also provide some basic services, including a shared set of nurses and computer help.

But if Juarez wants anything else — a school clerk, a library assistant, a copier — it has to pay for it out of its $143,000 allocation. It would cost Juarez more than $230,000 to keep all of its current staff and supplies, including an assistant and a school clerk and part-time help with guiding kids, tracking attendance, running the library and tending to kids’ health needs. It’s already a pretty small staff.

Juarez also gets federal money for disadvantaged students and English learners, along with some grants. It expects to get roughly $9,400 less than it did last year, largely because of disappearing state grants.

Those funds pay for a teacher who works with English learners — nearly 50 percent of its kids — and special teachers who help “push in” to classrooms for an intensive session called Power Hour. And losing one grant meant that Juarez has to find another way to pay for its copier, which costs $10,000 a year.

Wednesday morning, five teachers, one school assistant and a mom sat huddled over thermoses of coffee in a cold library, trying to make sense of the numbers that Principal Marceline Marques got just a day and a half ago. While the new governor just came out with a new budget, nobody at Juarez was quite sure what that would mean. They had heard K-12 schools would be spared, but only if taxes pass.

“Changes happen. We don’t really know. Right now we have to plan with what we have,” Marques said.

What makes all this planning especially hard is that everyone knows exactly who is behind the budget numbers. Cutting the school assistant would mean cutting Treasure Love, who was jotting down notes during the meeting. Trimming back on other employees’ hours so that the school wouldn’t have to pay for benefits — which sometimes outstrip their salaries — would hurt people they know.

Next Juarez will take its tough decisions to parents. Check back soon for an update on how Juarez goes through the painful process of cutting itself and what it ultimately puts on the chopping block.

Correction: The original version of this post said Juarez had 241 students, based on the projected student enrollment numbers for Juarez. The post has been updated with the actual figure, which is 267. We regret the error.

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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