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As the deadline looms to warn most teachers of layoffs, the San Diego teachers union is making a case that slashing hundreds of teachers, counselors and other workers is largely unnecessary. They argue that the school district is lowballing enrollment and not counting hundreds of teachers who will retire.

San Diego Unified faces an estimated $120 million deficit for next school year. The school board is slated to vote on Thursday whether to warn more than 900 educators and at least 600 more other workers that their jobs are on the line.

The union argues that the district doesn’t need to. It backs up its claim with an analysis that rests on three key claims:

• San Diego Unified is underestimating how many students will enroll, which in turn means it is underestimating how much funding it will get from the state. That funding could spare teachers.

• The school district is not counting the number of teachers who will retire, whose jobs can then be eliminated without turning to layoffs.

• The school district hasn’t counted the number of temporary teachers who can be shed without layoffs. Temporary teachers work on year-to-year contracts, so the school district can simply opt to not give them another contract.

The teachers union analysis concludes that only 128 jobs in the teachers union need to be eliminated — not 885 as proposed. “They’re building in a cushion with people,” said Craig Leedham, executive director of the union. “That’s what’s so upsetting about this. That cushion is built on the back of employees.”

San Diego Unified has sent out layoff warnings to teachers twice in the last four years. Both times it brought back teachers or didn’t end up laying them off. (Why? Check out our San Diego Explained about why school districts send out pink slips and then tear them up.)

The question of whether or not pink slips are needed is a crucial debate in San Diego Unified. The school board is already weighing whether to avoid sending out pink slips. That could avoid the stress and anguish of waiting for layoffs that don’t pan out. But it could come back to bite the board if budget cuts are as bad as predicted, since the school district could lose the ability to lay off teachers if it doesn’t warn them first.

I haven’t heard back yet from the school district about the specific analysis done by the teachers union, but San Diego Unified staff have already been urging board members that warning teachers of layoffs is unfortunate but necessary.

For instance, a lengthy memo from Deputy Superintendent Phil Stover argues that retirements and eliminating temps can’t be used to decide how many pink slips to send. While the savings may be real, Stover wrote, the school district cannot use predictions to plan layoffs.

“Financial data must be based on reasonable assumptions of what is; not of what may be,” Stover wrote.

Stover also argued that the predicted enrollment was prudent, especially since the school district had agreed to open five new charter schools, which could pull away students from district schools.

He added that their predictions had been within 1 percent of the actual enrollment three times in the past five years — and were still within 1.25 percent in the other two years.

The school district must send a preliminary budget plan to the County Office of Education by March 15. So the debate over whether or not to warn teachers of layoffs is not just about what will work for San Diego Unified. It’s also about what will pass muster with the county office, which can reject the preliminary budget and send the district back to the drawing board if it thinks the budget is poorly planned.

Expect a flurry of debate about pink slips as the school board gets ready to decide whether to warn teachers and other employees of layoffs on Thursday.

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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