Under an unusual set of rules, some San Diego Unified School District workers who lose their jobs and settle into lower positions will continue to earn their same pay for a year or more.

The longstanding rules are meant to insulate school workers from sudden changes in pay. But they will also chip away at the immediate savings if San Diego Unified tries to thin its workforce this year. Hundreds of jobs could be slashed as schools prepare for an estimated $120 million in cuts.

Here is how it works: Someone who climbed the San Diego Unified ladder from one job to the next can bump back into the kind of job they held before if their job is eliminated, displacing someone else. That person can bump someone else with less seniority. And so on. People bump each other like dominoes. The last domino that falls is the person who has nowhere to go — and they ultimately get laid off.

Bumping happens only to classified workers, those who don’t teach or hold a credential like counselors or nurses. They range from cooks and custodians to budget analysts and construction managers. The phenomenon occurs in school districts all over California. But in San Diego Unified, a rare rule says that when a clerk or computer technician bumps to a lower job, they don’t get a lower paycheck right away.

The school district typically keeps paying them their old, higher wages for a year and a half. The only immediate savings it gets are from the last domino, the lowest employee who actually leaves.

Similar rules ease the budget pain for the top managers, supervisors and school administrators in San Diego Unified. If they lose their jobs to budget cuts but are reassigned to lower spots in the district as administrators, they still keep their higher wages for a year.

Mitzi Merino lost a roughly $144,000-a-year job as an elementary school improvement officer when the district eliminated the job. She was then tapped for a less lucrative position as an elementary principal. But Merino still earned the same daily rate this school year, thanks to the rules.

She is slated to earn about $121,000 this school year because she works significantly fewer days than before; her pay will drop this summer to around $105,000, typical pay for an elementary principal.

Deputy Superintendent Phil Stover estimated in extreme cases of bumping, schools reap only 60 percent of the savings from eliminating a plum position right away. That forces San Diego Unified to eliminate more jobs. But bumping is not always as costly as that extreme case. School district officials say it is difficult to calculate exact costs, since each move depends on a complex web of rules.

For instance, workers who were hired from the outside into top jobs, like Stover himself, aren’t entitled to bump anyone at all. If San Diego Unified cut his job, it would save 100 percent of his salary.

If an employee was only promoted a few months before bumping back down, he or she would only keep their higher pay for a few more months. And an employee could also bump into a job with the exact same pay. School officials plan ahead for bumping costs by using average salaries when they budget.

Labor union leaders say the practice temporarily cushions the blow for employees taking a hit, including some of the lowest paid workers in the district. Many argue that the lessened savings are just another reason to avoid cutting workers at all.

“If you make $2,000 a month and you go to $1,200 a month, that’s a huge impact on your family,” said Sylvia Alvarez, president of the office, technical and business workers union. “This gives them some time to adjust. It’s not going to be there forever.”

But when cuts are deep and bumping is rampant, even small differences in pay add up. Budget plans for next year are still in flux, with Superintendent Bill Kowba slated to unveil his proposals on Thursday night. As of Wednesday night, San Diego Unified predicted at least 488 classified workers would lose their jobs. School officials argue after years of trying to trim “stuff not staff,” they must resort to cutting employees.

Suzanne Speck, who consults school districts on human resources with the group School Services of California, said she had never encountered any other districts that guaranteed the same salary to a bumped employee, even temporarily. Speck called it “quite generous.”

Former human resources chief Deberie Gomez said she had worked in 15 different school districts over her career and had never heard of such rules before coming to San Diego Unified in 1999.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Gomez said. “I was shocked. I went to other administrators and said, ‘Does anybody else have this thing?’”

Sweetwater Union High School District in the South Bay has a similar rule: Classified workers who bump into a lower job keep their previous salary for a year. But Grossmont and Poway schools said they had no such rules. Neither do two other large urban school districts, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The city of San Diego doesn’t allow employees who bump into lower jobs to keep their old salaries, mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said. San Diego County allows it if the human resources director approves, but a spokesman said it’s extremely rare.

School district and union officials say the rules, embedded in labor agreements and a district procedure, have existed as long as they can remember. The last time anyone recalls them being challenged was under former Superintendent Alan Bersin, when the district stopped offering salary protections for school administrators, who were not unionized at the time. They won it back later.

“It’s been a perk that our employees have,” said Donis Armenta Coronel, a former human resources worker who now sits on the administrators union board. “And there’s no way the unions are going to negotiate it out unless they get something really good.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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

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