Marilyn Tilos burst into crying in the middle of the meeting. She wasn’t sure later exactly what triggered the tears. But even trying to talk about it made the elementary school teacher crumple again.

“Every teacher grows up thinking they’re going to do a lot for their kids. Oh no,” Tilos said. Sobs punctuated her thoughts. “That we weren’t. Going to let anything. Stop them from getting the best education. And here I am. Where I want to be. And I can’t do any more than I’m doing.”

I’m following Juarez Elementary, a tiny school in Serra Mesa, as it tries to slash its budget. It’s a new power, and burden, for schools as San Diego Unified decentralizes its budget decisions. This is my second stop at the school as I try to think small on the district’s big budget mess.

Last night, Principal Marceline Marques held a meeting for parents in its little auditorium to talk about the choices ahead of them. The sober talk was happily muffled by the squeals of children playing past a thin partition. Just a few moms and dads came to sip from Styrofoam cups of coffee and listen.

Juarez is supposed to slash roughly 11 percent of its school budget, deciding for itself what — and who — to cut. It is slated to get $143,000 to cover extra workers and supplies that cost roughly $230,000 this year. The school also gets special money for disadvantaged students, English learners and other needs, but expects to get roughly $9,400 less than it did last year, largely because of disappearing state grants.

“We have to look at, what do we really, really need?” Marques told the small crowd.

Parents paged through paper surveys asking them to rank different jobs against one another. One part of the survey asks who should come first: A school assistant who handles payroll, schedules and student assessments? A bilingual school clerk who tracks attendance and translates at community events? A counselor? A health technician who tends to injuries and keeps health records?

“We need the office staff,” said Marlene Sirithaofong, whose son takes the bus from City Heights every morning to get to his third grade class. “They are the center of the school. They track absences so they don’t lose funding. I’m worrying about the teachers too. If they’ll keep their jobs.”

Another page in the survey asks whether Juarez should try to buy extra teachers to keep class sizes small. Classes from kindergarten to third grade are slated to grow to 29 students instead of 24.

Juarez could buy more teachers to stop that, but just one teacher would cost $86,000 in salary and benefits, roughly one third of all the money the school has to work with, Marques said.

Marques is also trying to see if two nearby elementary schools, Cubberley and Wegeforth, are willing to share a school clerk or guidance or health assistants. That way the employees will still work enough hours to get benefits, but each school can pay for less of their time. As Marques put it, they need to get quality people — and not many of them are willing to work just a few hours a day with no benefits.

Then again, some are. The library assistant has already offered to work fewer hours, saying she could take care of the tiny school in just two hours a day and was willing to take the pay cut.

It’s all happening at a breakneck pace: All the surveys are supposed to be back to Principal Marceline Marques by 4 p.m. today, since the school has to have its budget done in two weeks.

Marques also sent an email encouraging any employee whose job is in jeopardy to come to a meeting next week to talk about their job and how it helps Juarez.

“It’s hard to be the cheerleader because it’s all bad news,” Marques said later.

Nobody had any technical questions for Marques after she went through the numbers. Instead, one mother, Kirsty Holland, asked how the schools could keep expecting children to get to college if they had such skimpy support in elementary and middle school. Mike Price, the area superintendent who oversees the Serra Mesa area, stepped up to the microphone from the audience to try to answer her.

“I can’t stand before you and say it’s going to be business as usual next year,” Price said. “Because I don’t think the governor has a rabbit in his hat.”

On the other side of the auditorium, Tilos was crying.

Update: Principal Marques sent an email to staff today saying that since parent turnout was so low at the budget meeting, the survey would be sent home with kids and wouldn’t be due until Tuesday. “This will also give staff a little extra time to discuss and reflect,” Marques wrote.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert

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

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