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The San Diego Unified school board voted Thursday night to green light a tentative plan to close an estimated $120 million budget gap, along with another, less bruising plan that would nearly halve the cuts if voters approve a tax extension proposed by Governor Jerry Brown.

“We are caught in the middle of a sea of uncertainty,” Superintendent Bill Kowba told the school board.

And neither of those plans is the worst case scenario — what would happen if the state suspends its minimum school funding and taxes don’t pass. Why didn’t they plan for the absolute worst?

“Because it’s absolutely impossible,” school board member John Lee Evans explained to the crowd.

The main plan would eliminate 84 school bus routes and pare back on 138 more, up class sizes for the smallest students to 29 students per teacher, eliminate special funding for magnet schools and cut arts classes unless schools opt to pay for them themselves, among other reductions. Those cuts would cost more than 1,300 employees their jobs, including more than 500 classroom teachers.

The alternative plan, which hinges on voters agreeing to tax extensions in June and softens the blow by $57 million, would bring K-3 class sizes back to 24 students per teacher, lessen cuts to magnet programs, the arts and gifted programs, and pour $11.5 million back into schools to decide how to spend.

Many of the cuts stemmed from choices that schools made for themselves. Schools were each given a pool of money and told to choose what to fund. Nurses, who did not fare well, came decked out in white coats to plead for their jobs at the school board meeting. Precocious kids pleaded for gifted programs. Others made the case for the arts and music or magnet schools or landscapers or Camp Palomar.

The school board repeatedly reminded parents, employees and the media that these plans are preliminary. San Diego Unified has to send a budget plan to the County Office of Education by March 15 — the same deadline it has to warn most teachers, counselors and nurses that their jobs could be cut. Its final budget is not due until the end of June.

While Evans said he didn’t like any of the options, he voted along with most of the school board to approve the plans so that Kowba could continue planning. “We can’t have the superintendent and staff just standing there staring like a deer in the headlights,” Evans said.

The next big financial choice for the school board is in less than two weeks, when it is scheduled to weigh a resolution on what kinds of jobs to cut and how many. It would be the next step toward layoffs.

The school board has quietly batted around the idea of not sending out pink slips to warn teachers of layoffs, a step that could spare workers the anxiety if layoffs prove to be unnecessary, but prove risky if the district needs them after all. Board members did not discuss that idea on Thursday night.

The sole school board member to vote against the budget plans was Shelia Jackson, who complained that the plans were rushed and had only been released to the public Wednesday night. Jackson also argued that the cuts meant some areas of the school district were “getting shafted.”

For instance, Jackson said it was absurd that police services would be reduced at Wilson and Mann, which she called “two of our neediest middle schools.”

New board member Scott Barnett urged the school district to look into more options. For instance, Barnett proposed that San Diego Unified could have just five area superintendents, instead of the proposed eight, and charge families the full costs for magnet busing if they don’t qualify for free lunches. The school board backed the idea of at least exploring those added ideas.

“I’m not just praying for money,” Barnett said. “I am suggesting approaches to do that.”

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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