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Education boosters cheered the revised budget that Gov. Jerry Brown released last week as good news for schools. But San Diego Unified staff warned the school board not to just start rolling back cuts.

The revised budget sends more money to schools because of an unexpected boost in state revenue, but it still relies on some tax extensions that Republicans have been loath to put to a vote.

Both Republicans and Democrats have pledged to protect education from the very worst scenario: California dropping its minimum guarantee for school funding. But the tax extensions remain a political wild card. Even if the taxes get onto the ballot, a November election could mean those funds are only guaranteed for five months, said Monica Henestroza, who oversees government relations.

“It’s very hard to pin your hopes on a negotiation that depends on very human emotions,” Henestroza said of the state budget talks. She later added, “These estimates aren’t technical estimates. In all of these cases these are political assessments. That makes it extremely difficult.”

San Diego Unified has been planning on roughly $114 million in cuts. The best-case scenario would bring in another estimated $32 million, school district officials said. The worst wouldn’t be markedly different than its existing plans.

“I think we need to aggressively move forward building our budget on the May revise,” said school board President Richard Barrera. That means canceling some of the planned cuts, Barrera said.

That was what teachers union President Bill Freeman urged them to do. More than 750 educators, including teachers, counselors, librarians and others, were sent layoff notices earlier this month. The union has pushed aggressively against the layoffs, saying they aren’t needed and never have been.

“Stop finding excuses and find ways to do this,” Freeman told the school board.

But even if San Diego Unified gets more money than it expected this year, the financial picture gets a lot bleaker in future years. Salary increases that the school board negotiated with labor unions last spring will begin to kick in 2012-2013, adding $22 million in new costs. Health care costs are rising, adding an estimated $10 million annually.

Finance chief Ron Little pointed out that even in the best-case scenario, San Diego Unified would be left with an ending balance of less than $4 million at the end of 2012-2013. Little compared that to having a household budget of $60,000 and ending the year with $200. That alarmed school board member Scott Barnett, who said the school board shouldn’t just put together “a one-year feel-good fix.”

“We need to solve this problem,” Barnett said. “Because it’s going to get worse.” He said the school district couldn’t afford the raises it had pledged to teachers and other employees.

Barrera countered that in the past, estimates for budgets years in the future had been wildly off, comparing it to making bad decisions while preparing for the rapture.

The school board has already approved a draft budget that was vetted by the County Office of Education; it must pass its final budget for next school year by the end of June.

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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