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The San Diego Unified school board voted Thursday to warn more than 1,000 teachers, nurses and other educators of layoffs and eliminate jobs for more than 800 other employees. If those warnings lead to real layoffs, that would mean axing more than one in eight educators in the massive district.

“Doing so goes against everything that I believe in,” said school board President Richard Barrera before he voted to send layoff warnings. “I don’t think this is right. I don’t think this is smart.” But Barrera said he feared that if they did not warn teachers of layoffs, they could lose the ability to steer the district.

The school district estimates it faces a $120 million deficit for next school year. That number could drop by $27.5 million if legislators agree to put tax extensions on the June ballot and if voters approve them. Chief Financial Officer Ron Little warned the school board that they couldn’t bank on those tax extensions. If they did — and didn’t warn workers of layoffs — Little said there would be dire results.

Little said the County Office of Education, which vets the tentative budget plan due March 15, could mark down the school district for an iffy financial plan. That could make it harder for the school district to borrow money, a crucial way it has paid its bills when California delays payments to schools. He warned that, in turn, could put San Diego Unified at risk of failing to make its payroll in October.

Its credit rating could sink, costing it more than $500 million in interest on its school renovation and construction bond, Little said. Kowba said they would risk “losing control of our own destiny.”

“I’m not trying to paint doom and gloom,” Superintendent Bill Kowba said. “This is just fiscal reality.”

Schools must warn most teachers that their jobs could be cut by March 15 or lose the right to lay them off altogether. A quirk in the law could allow teachers to be warned as late as August, something the school board had weighed whether to use; Little warned that option wasn’t guaranteed to be open.

The warnings are just that — warnings. Teacher layoffs could still be canceled or reduced before the school board polishes off its final budget in June.

The teachers union argued that warning teachers of layoffs was unnecessary. It contends that the school district is underestimating its enrollment and unnecessarily discounting how retirements could lessen layoffs. They pointed out that San Diego Unified has repeatedly warned teachers that their jobs are on the line, only to cancel layoffs or rehire them later when budgets prove better than predicted.

“These layoffs are as unwarranted and divisive now as they were in 2008, 2009 and 2010,” teachers union vice president Camille Zombro said to rising cheers. “You know it. We know it.”

Many teachers urged the school board to forgo layoffs as an act of protest, saying they would stand with them against the budget mandates and deadlines of the County Office.

“You don’t have to do exactly what the superintendent says,” music teacher Lucille Park implored them.

School board member Shelia Jackson proposed to consolidate several administrative offices and put the savings towards the arts and school landscaping, among other shifts. The plan would have saved $4 million. Instead, Barrera successfully amended the idea to simply ask the staff to find another $4 million in administrative cuts — money that could later be used to cancel cuts.

Another idea came from new school board member Scott Barnett. He argued that the board could still come up with a responsible budget plan to submit to the County Office of Education that spared 400 teachers, nurses and other educators by cutting middle managers and area superintendents and slashing other staff who don’t teach, including custodians, bus drivers and landscapers.

“The bottom line is we have to make choices and the choices, in my view, have to be the priority of spending the money closest to the kids,” Barnett said. His plan didn’t get backing from the rest of the board.

Barrera voted along with board members Jackson and John Lee Evans to warn the teachers and other employees of layoffs; Barrera told teachers and labor leaders gathered in the audience, “I am going to violate your trust in me tonight.” Barnett and Kevin Beiser voted against the plan; Beiser said he felt that the school district staff had not turned over every stone to find other savings.

Over and over, school board members and upset employees alike urged parents to call Sacramento legislators and push them to allow tax extensions to be put before voters this June.

“The incredible deficit we face here pales in comparison to the moral bankruptcy being demonstrated in Sacramento,” said McKinley Elementary parent Sandy Mattson.

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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