The teachers union argues that San Diego Unified has $66 million that it could use immediately to cancel layoffs for hundreds of school employees. But the school district says if it tapped the money, it would only end up deeper in the hole for next year and the year after.

The $66 million comes from two lines in the San Diego Unified budget summary: one that lists $57 million in “unextended balances/set aside” and another $9 million in surplus money for this year. That money is on top of the reserve funds that it sets aside for emergencies.

Chief Financial Officer Ron Little says the funds are nothing new. The $57 million includes a onetime funding bump of $30 million that was deferred by the state — and San Diego Unified has yet to receive it — along with an infusion of federal money that has already been counted in the budget.

“If we were to use that money to pay for salaries, we’d have to find $57 million of reductions somewhere else. Which we don’t have!” Little said.

Little added that the other $9 million is already threatened by an estimated $8 million to $10 million in added financial risks that weren’t counted in budget plans.

Craig Leedham, executive director of the teachers union, derided it as a disingenuous way of hiding funds. “Set asides” are no different than extra reserves, Leedham said, and this is the time to use extra reserves. The San Diego Education Association website put it even more bluntly:

No one is suggesting that the Board dip into its reserves in a manner that would imperil the financial health or viability of the District. But sitting atop reserve funds that are literally quadruple the amount required by law and then issuing more than 1,300 layoffs is just flat out reckless.

Based on today’s testimony, it is clear that Ron Little and his finance department are either grossly inept or grossly dishonest. Either way, it’s just gross.

School board member Scott Barnett complained that the teachers union was giving false hope and sowing confusion among workers now wondering if their jobs can be spared. If San Diego Unified used that money to roll back layoffs, “we’d dig a bigger hole in the following year,” Barnett said.

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure who has it right in this debate. I’m still trying to understand what would happen if this money were used and why. Little plans to release a written analysis today. I’m hoping to get an outside expert to check it out. I’ll update the blog when I do.

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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