San Diego Unified will use more than $7 million in redevelopment money to help cancel some planned layoffs for teachers and counselors, a move that city redevelopment officials argue is illegal.

The school board opted to peel back some of its planned cuts even as it braces for a deficit that could be much worse than it had thought. San Diego Unified estimates in the worst case it could face as much as $55 million in added cuts on top of the roughly $120 million in cuts it has already planned for.

“We’ve got to get real,” said school board member Scott Barnett. He and John Lee Evans voted against the move. Barnett called it a shortsighted decision that would hurt schools in the long run. Financial experts outside San Diego Unified have warned school districts against writing off any possible cuts.

Barnett wasn’t the only one with qualms. The Centre City Development Corp., the city downtown redevelopment agency that collects the money, has argued that it cannot be spent on teachers.

School district leaders had always assumed the money could only be spent on building and custodial costs. Its lawyers recently argued it could be used for any educational cost, including teacher salaries. Its pact with the redevelopment agency says the money can be used for facilities and “related educational programs” in and around downtown.

That put the redevelopment money in demand, since it could be used to cancel the planned teacher layoffs that have threatened to bloat class sizes and driven a wedge between the school board and the union. More than 1,000 educators are still on the chopping block, warned their jobs are at risk.

School board member Shelia Jackson, who voted for the move, called it a first step in taking back money from “redevelopment people.” (San Diego Unified has unsuccessfully lobbied to speed up the flow of redevelopment money to help plug its budget holes.) She waved off the nightmare scenario of another $55 million in cuts as unthinkable, something they should simply refuse to do if the state demanded it.

“The state will not have enough balls to take over this district,” Jackson said. “You tell them I said it!”

Up until recently, the $7 million in redevelopment money had been bound to help pay the $20 million lease for a charter school in the planned downtown library. San Diego Unified had turned to the money to help ease demands on its $2.1 billion construction bond, which originally covered the whole lease.

Two weeks ago, the school board opted to go back to its original plan and use more funding from the bond to cover those costs, freeing up redevelopment money to be spent elsewhere. Tonight, it took the next step and devoted those dollars to reversing a fraction of its planned layoffs. Barrera estimated that the money could save as many as 90 teachers; the exact number is still being worked out by staff.

Because downtown redevelopment money must be spent in and around downtown, the redevelopment money will cover costs for teachers downtown. However, doing that will free up money from the day-to-day budget to reverse layoffs at schools all over San Diego Unified, not just downtown.

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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