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The silences came and went. The minutes ticked past. After a rushed week and a half of agonizing over their budget, the Juarez Elementary teachers, parents and principal had to make their decision.

But the decision still seemed impossible. Juarez could pay to keep one of the two teachers who were in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the tiny school, which would keep class sizes down. Or it could continue to fund hourly teachers who work in small groups with children during Power Hour, something Juarez credits for boosting kids’ scores.

The school staff was split right down the middle on the two options.

“It would be wonderful to have class-size reduction,” said Nicole Bell, the first grade teacher. “But we’re feeling success with Power Hour and we don’t want to lose all that extra support.”

Everyone wanted to have both. And Principal Marceline Marques said it couldn’t be done, not with the amount of money they were given. From time to time, the meeting grew so quiet that you could hear the whisper of markers as two girls sat drawing in the corner of the school library.

I’ve been following Juarez, a small school in Serra Mesa, as it figures out how to slash its budget. Under a new way of budgeting in San Diego Unified, schools have more power to decide what to cut as the district plans for an estimated $120 million deficit. But that power has been a painful one. Juarez had to decide how to cut an estimated 11 percent of its school site budget.

This was my fifth visit to the school. And it was decision time. Marques said she needed to decide how the school would spend its money before she met with a budget analyst on Saturday. A committee of parents and teachers met in the library at 8 a.m. Friday. But it was nearly 9 a.m. before they decided.

“My son is going to be late for school!” mother Hope Thomley Bell said as the minutes escaped.

Slowly they came to their conclusion. Mother Kamisha Umbarger summed it up: Juarez is like a family. The best thing the school could do is keep that family intact. She opted to pay to keep at least one of their teachers. If more money came to the school later, they could spend more on hourly help.

And that was what the group decided to do: Pay to keep at least one of its endangered teachers. But the plan still means disruption at Juarez. There will be much less time and help for Power Hour. Instead of spending $65,000 on hourly help for it, Juarez will spend less than $23,000 next year.

The office staff will get thinner. A health worker and a guidance assistant will come in just three hours a day, about half as often as they used to; the library assistant will come in even less often than that. The school clerk, now a full time job, will also come in just three hours a day.

Juarez is replacing its school assistant with a bilingual school secretary, a job that the longtime assistant Treasure Love can’t fill because she isn’t bilingual. Other nonteaching employees may be bumped because more senior workers displaced from other schools could grab their jobs at Juarez.

Juarez is also devoting less than $20,000 to supplies, compared to $26,000 this year — and teachers say they’re already buying their own glue. The staff made an open plea to me at the meeting: Please, please tell the world that we need more school supplies. I figure it’s the least I can do for the privilege of coming into their school and telling this story.

While Juarez is done putting together its budget for now, its financial situation could still change a lot. San Diego Unified is still budgeting based on old numbers. If voters agree to tax extensions this summer, that could lessen the cuts for schools such as Juarez. If they don’t, the cuts could get even worse. And that could throw Juarez Elementary back into the painful position of deciding what it has to cut.

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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