A year ago, the San Diego Unified school board promised future raises to teachers, counselors and other employees, a tradeoff for taking furlough days that shortened the school year and cut their pay.

Now a new school board member is calling for unions to forgo those raises before they kick in and use the money to spare jobs instead, sparking a showdown with the teachers union.

“I believe they deserve the raises,” said school board member Scott Barnett in a press conference today. “But we can’t afford to. It’s that simple. The bottom line is every dollar we spend on raises is a dollar we don’t have to retain nurses, teachers, counselors and our vital support staff.”

The teachers union immediately called a press conference to denounce that idea. “Barnett is calling for needless concessions based on imaginary budget projects that go years into the future,” said union President Bill Freeman. He argued that Barnett was just trying to score political points.

More than 750 educators are now on the chopping block, along with hundreds more workers such as bus drivers, library assistants and health technicians, as the district faces an estimated $114 million budget gap. Teachers are also taking home less money this year and next: The union agreed last year to take furloughs, five unpaid days off that helped save roughly $20 million annually for two years.

But the year after next, those furlough days disappear. Then salaries will increase bit-by-bit over a year, ultimately increasing pay by more than 7 percent by July 2013.

San Diego Unified estimates those pay hikes will cost another $22 million in 2012-2013 and an added $23 million in 2013-2014.Chief Financial Officer Ron Little warned the school board on Tuesday that even in the best case, bigger deficits loom in future years, partly because of the raises.

Barnett wants the teachers union to relinquish those raises and also freeze the “step-and-column” pay increases that educators automatically get for longevity or extra training or degrees, which are projected to cost $12.5 million next year. He lamented that most of the unions have refused to go back to the bargaining table to reconsider pay.

The teachers union argues that Barnett is setting up a false tradeoff, claiming that neither layoffs nor stopping the salary increases is necessary. Labor leaders point out that a new, revised budget proposed by the governor would bring in more money; San Diego Unified pegs it at $32 million in added revenue for next school year, while the union has trumpeted a higher figure of $50 million.

“The more money they get, the deeper the concessions they demand,” Freeman said.

School Services of California, a group that advises school districts, told them in writing last week to go ahead and follow that revised plan with its rosier numbers. But the County Office of Education, which vets school district budgets, told school financial officials yesterday that the revisions “did very little to change the actual budgetary position of your district,” warning it was still tied to tax extensions that might not pan out.

San Diego Unified staffers have cautioned against canceling cuts, stressing both the iffiness of the tax extensions and deficits that are projected to jump in future years, even if the taxes are extended.

While the school board voted earlier this year to try to open talks with labor unions about savings, Barnett has been the only school board member to push aggressively and publicly for concessions like these. That has sometimes put him at odds with the rest of the board, which has largely been sympathetic to labor even as it faces union ire over layoffs.

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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