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Principal Marceline Marques was still recovering from a fever when she came to school Friday.

And she wasn’t feeling so great in general. One week after parents and teachers thought they had finished making the painful decisions about what to cut from their budgets, Marques had to gather them again.

Then she opened the door to her office and started laughing. Goofy green stuffed animals were perched on shelves and tables all over her corner office. A department store had donated extra books and toys to her school. It was a nice surprise in a week that was loaded with nasty ones.

You’re probably wondering why I’m back at Juarez, the tiny elementary school that I’ve been following as it patches together its budget. It faced an estimated 11 percent cut in its school site budget.

Juarez finished putting together its budget earlier in the month, making tough choices as a team.

But Marques quickly found out that its numbers were off. The problem was that Juarez had not counted on one type of benefits that are afforded to all employees, part-time or full-time. When Marques sat down with a budget analyst to enter her financial plan into the computer, she discovered that because of the benefits, they had roughly $20,000 less to work with than they thought.

Mother Kirsty Holland described it like this: “The rug was pulled out from everyone’s feet.”

To cope, Juarez could cut the school clerk, yank more than $3,500 out of the school supplies budget, spend less on lunchtime supervision and trim back spending on the school copier to the point that if the machine broke down, the school couldn’t afford to repair it. The principal didn’t like the way it looked.

So teachers and parents sat down in the Juarez Elementary library again before school to reconsider the budget. Marques asked them a touchy question: Should they keep paying for an extra teacher?

Earlier, Juarez had decided to use a sizable chunk of its funding to spare at least one of the two teachers who were expected to lose their spots at the small school because class sizes are growing and enrollment is predicted to drop.

But with the new numbers, parents and teachers decided it wasn’t doable to pay for a teacher. “I don’t think we can afford it,” mother Hope Thomley Bell said wistfully.

Juarez quickly redid its budget to stop paying for the extra classroom teacher. To try to compensate, it will bring in less expensive classroom assistants to blunt the impact of bigger classes. And it will add more hourly teachers to help with a special program in which kids break into small groups to get more attention. It will still cut the clerk, but it is ramping up the hours for its guidance assistant.

The school committee also decided to pony up more to keep the elementary assistant, Treasure Love, instead of replacing her with a secretary who cost less and could speak Spanish, as it had planned last week. Parent Kamisha Umbarger said that if the office was thinner, they should have a known face.

While schools aren’t guaranteed to keep specific people because many nonteaching employees can bump less senior ones from their jobs, Love has worked in the district a long time and will likely stay put, Marques said. Schools are urged to think about “positions not people,” but the reality is different.

As parents and teachers tried to redo the budget, one of their biggest frustrations was figuring out who could do what in the office. Depending on their job descriptions, a clerk could do some things, while an elementary assistant could do others, and so on. Teachers asked if the guidance assistant, someone who counsels children, could also do work around the office or answer the phones.

“They should look at all the job descriptions again,” said Claudia Walters, who teaches kindergarten and first grade. For a small school to work, people need to be able to multitask, she argued.

Redoing the budget in such a short period of time has also left Juarez with a sense of unreality. Is this the budget or isn’t it? And how many more times will they have to change their plans? We’ll keep following Juarez as it crafts its budget.

It looked like the end, but it might be just the beginning.

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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