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As the school board faced the unsavory task of finalizing layoffs for hundreds of teachers Tuesday night, its president attempted to peel back pink slips for an estimated 200 or more teachers. But the idea fell apart as the San Diego Unified school board argued over how, when and whether to cancel layoffs.

I try to avoid writing about things that don’t happen. But the episode was so bizarre in so many ways, not least because the school board, which tilts toward labor, has repeatedly said it wants to stop layoffs. It’s already reduced the number of planned pink slips, for instance, by tapping redevelopment money. Yet this idea ended up fizzling over other fault lines on the school board over budget issues. Here’s what happened.

School board President Richard Barrera wanted to cancel layoffs for elementary school teachers hired in 2005 or earlier. He estimated it would put $15 million to $20 million at risk, but argued that everyday attrition from teachers retiring, going on leave or moving away could ensure spots for the teachers and make it a wash. The school district estimates a deficit of $114 million for next school year.

But board member Shelia Jackson wanted to go a step further. She argued that if the board took a risk by canceling some teacher layoffs, it should also cancel layoffs for all other workers who don’t teach, such as bus drivers, library assistants and school clerks. She hinted that either way, canceling cuts could lead the County Office of Education to try to assume control over the school district.

“If we’re going to go down the tubes, let’s go down fighting for everybody,” Jackson said.

School board member Scott Barnett, known as a budget hawk, said it was imprudent to just start canceling layoffs without new funding. He has repeatedly questioned whether the school district should reduce planned layoffs while the district could be threatened with up to another $55 million in cuts.

“What are we smoking up here?” Barnett asked. “This is crazy.”

The school district attorney said the board couldn’t vote on Jackson’s idea, since it wasn’t on the agenda. Yet they voted anyway. Board member Kevin Beiser liked the idea but abstained because he said he didn’t want to break public meeting laws. Jackson’s idea failed 3 to 1, with only her backing it.

Then it started to get really confusing. If you want even more of the nitty gritty, read the next three paragraphs. If you would like your life to be simpler, just join me again back at the *.

Barrera tried to get a single vote that would do two things: finalize the layoffs for hundreds of teachers while canceling the planned layoffs for the elementary teachers he’d singled out.

But Beiser, who had seconded the idea of canceling the layoffs, didn’t want to vote “yes” on finalizing hundreds of layoffs in the same move. So he withdrew his second to the plan. The idea died.

Barrera split up the two actions to try and revive it. First the school board voted on whether to accept a ruling from an administrative judge to finalize layoffs for more than 750 teachers, sending another, permanent round of layoff notices out. It did so, with Beiser alone voting against it.

*Then Barrera reintroduced his idea of canceling some layoffs. School board member John Lee Evans said though he wants to lessen layoffs, he couldn’t support the idea now because the school district still has little information about what its budget will be; the governor releases a revised budget next week.

Jackson said she wouldn’t back it because it was “piecemeal” and other workers were left out. And it wasn’t a surprise that Barnett opposed it. So the idea failed 3 to 2, with only Barrera and Beiser for it.

Teachers in red shirts, who had pleaded to be spared, sighed and filed out of the auditorium.

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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