Brenna Kielty inhaled and tried to explain why her job should be saved.

She is the English-learner support teacher, a job that entails everything from training teachers to gauging whether students are ready to be declared fluent in English. Her voice wavered as she spoke to the crowd in the school library.

“This has been an extremely uncomfortable couple days for me,” Kielty said slowly. “I thought I’d be able to handle it. I wanted to come in here and say, ‘Whatever you decide.’” But Kielty said she decided to speak up because she does believe her work matters to children.

What might seem strange is that Kielty didn’t need to plead for her job. After days of discussion about whether her job can be trimmed back or altered, the principal said she planned to keep that job intact.

Juarez Elementary has become a pressure cooker it tries to figure out what to cut under San Diego Unified’s new, neighborhood level budgeting approach. And at a small school where everyone knows everyone, no one can help feeling that the cuts are personal. Even if those cuts are already off the table.

Mary Chicorel, the third grade teacher, talked to Kielty at a Wednesday meeting, praising her work ethic, professionalism and intelligence.

“This is not about who you are as a person,” Chicorel said. “It’s about that chunk of money. Struggle against that feeling that it’s personal. Because it’s not.”

I’m following Juarez, a tiny school in Serra Mesa, as it figures out how to shrink its budget. Schools now have more power to decide what to keep and what to cut. But the power has been a mixed blessing, leaving schools to make painful decisions about people they know.

This is my fourth stop at the school. After school on Wednesday, a committee of parents and teachers met to figure out how to spend the special money that Juarez gets for disadvantaged students and English learners. Those choices, in turn, could shape how it spends all the funds at the school.

Their decision has boiled down to a tradeoff: Is it worth spending money to spare at least one of their teachers and clamp down on class sizes?

Or should they devote those dollars to keeping other staff intact, such as the school clerk or the health technician or the “push in” teachers who work one-on-one with kids on an hourly basis?

If Juarez does nothing, it stands to lose two of its 10 teachers. The two least senior teachers are in jeopardy.

“I don’t want to lose any teachers. We lose ’em and we get someone new we don’t know,” said Kamisha Umbarger, president of the PTA. Two of her kids go to the school, one just graduated, and one is nearly ready to start preschool there, a grinning 4-year-old who spent the meeting coloring alongside Chicorel.

“We go into the office and it’s hugs and high fives,” Umbarger said of the office staff. “That breaks down when you start replacing people.”

Parents and school employees surveyed at Juarez were split about whether to spend the money to keep classes small and retain one of those teachers. Roughly half said they should and half said they shouldn’t.

Principal Marceline Marques said one alternative could be hiring classroom assistants: college students who could help out in class and make bigger classes seem smaller. But some teachers were skeptical, saying that a not-so-hot classroom assistant could be as much work as another student in class.

Juarez has grown tenser as decision time looms. Marques and the longstanding school assistant, Treasure Love, argued today about whether the school could call specifically for a bilingual school assistant. (Love is not bilingual.) Marques said she could. Love said she couldn’t. Marques has argued that if the office staff is thinned, there needs to be someone bilingual there all the time.

And Claudia Walters, who teaches kindergarten and first grade, grew exasperated hearing that the numbers could still change with the California budget, making their efforts for naught.

“If they’re going to ask staff to devote this much time and effort, they should give us some figures we can hold on to and make it worthwhile,” Walters said. “Because we’re going to make some major decisions on this tiny little campus.”

Parents and teachers will meet again Friday to try to make their decisions. Juarez and other schools on traditional calendars are supposed to have their budgets done by Feb. 1.

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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