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When San Diego Unified schools lose teachers, they lose the teachers who have spent the least amount of time in the school district. That means that everyone at tiny Juarez Elementary knows which teachers will lose their jobs if the school doesn’t decide to spend money to save them.

Their names are Stephanie French and Nicole Bell.

I’m following Juarez, a small school in Serra Mesa, as it figures out how to slash its budget. Under the new way of budgeting that San Diego Unified is using this year, schools have more power to decide what to keep and what to cut as the district plans for an estimated $120 million deficit.

But that power has been a painful one, especially as schools rush to get their draft budgets together. And Principal Marceline Marques said Tuesday that Juarez had only six working days left to make its plans.

Before school started for the day Tuesday, worried school employees sat in the library, talking over the numbers. This is my third stop at the school. Last week we got our first peek at how much Juarez has to cut and saw a teacher burst into tears when trying to make sense of the cuts.

San Diego Unified has pledged to staff schools with the bare minimum of teachers and let them decide if they want to pay for more. From kindergarten to third grade, schools would get a teacher for every 29 students instead of 24. The school district is also low-balling the estimated enrollment numbers, as it does every year, so that if it’s wrong it can send more teachers after school begins, not take them away.

As it makes budget plans, San Diego Unified estimates that Juarez will have 241 students next year, even though right now it has nearly 270 kids. That would afford it eight teachers. Right now it has 10.

Bell, one of the teachers whose job is at risk, touched her lips anxiously from time to time during the meeting. Losing her spot at Juarez may or may not mean losing a job in San Diego Unified too, depending on how many teachers are laid off district-wide.

That has Juarez eyeing its enrollment. To spare all the teachers they have now, Juarez could go on a recruiting frenzy and bring in more students to help spare teachers. But if it brought in more than 300 students, it would end up getting less money because the smallest schools get more money.

Buying at least one extra teacher could keep class sizes in the youngest grades down to 25 instead of 29.

But it would also involve tradeoffs, Marques warned. For instance, Marques said they could spare a classroom teacher by cutting other educators who work on an hourly basis for a “power hour” where kids get extra attention in small groups. Juarez could also cut back on staff in the school office, including a health technician, or pare back the money available for supplies.

One teacher said — and it wasn’t clear whether he was joking — that they could just stop assigning homework to save paper. Another asked whether the school could set specific hours when the phones would be answered and route the rest of calls to an answering machine. Marques didn’t like the idea. The staff also debated how much they needed someone who spoke Spanish in their front office.

Weighing these choices in such a short period of time has been stressful for employees. The talks over what to cut have grown increasingly tense, as people question the accuracy of budget information. A wrong number could mean a wrongful cut, so teachers are poring over the budget, checking the math.

“We were texting each other over the weekend saying, ‘Does your stomach hurt too?’ ‘Yes, my stomach hurts too,’” said Mary Chicorel, the third grade teacher and union representative for the school.

A school committee of teachers and parents will meet Wednesday afternoon to hear from employees about why their jobs matter. I’ll be there for the next chapter of the Juarez budget story.

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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